Why your environment is important when it comes to leadership

Being able to utilise or engineer your environment to get the most out of your leadership can help you enhance behavioural change.  The use of the environment to influence consumer behaviour is often used in business and there are many examples.

The iPhone is a classic and since its introduction, we have been able to work from any­where in the world. Another example is supermarkets positioning milk at the furthest back corner of the store to ensure you walk past numerous products on the way to and from the milk, in the hope of tempting you to buy more items. And dieters will be familiar with the concept of ‘shrinking your plate’ to make it seem as if you are eating the same amount of food, when in fact you are eating less.

Utilising your environment can also be used at work through things like changing your floor plan. One organisation I worked with supplied a small table and chairs off to the side of a desk in their senior leader’s offices. The aim to provide an additional space where con­versations could be held without the distraction of emails and messages at a leader’s desk.  I also have a coaching client who, when she needs to spend time focusing on strategic issues, will block her diary out for two hours, move to a small meeting room and turn her mobile phone off. In so doing, she is changing her environment to enable her to have the space to focus on what she needs to.

The balcony or the dance floor?

The best way to start to find opportunities to engineer your environment is to look around you and be aware of what is going on. Be curious about situations. Ask yourself what are some of the external factors that are impacting a situation which, if tweaked could change things or provide more opportunity?

One technique developed by Ron Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky from Harvard University is an Adaptive Leadership process of Observe, Interpret and Intervene.

  1. Observe

When you observe a situation that you would like to influ­ence you need to have both a higher level view and a lower level view. Heifetz et al use the terms Balcony View (high level) and Dance Floor View (low level) because of each pro­vides distinctly different information.

When you are on a dance floor, you see the people who are around you, within a few metres. When you stand on the balcony, however, and look down at the dancers you see the individuals within the system, you see different groups of people, and you see different types of dance styles, all providing you with a greater perspective and a broader understanding. So, using both perspectives will provide you with more data when assessing a situation.

  1. Interpret

In the movie Vantage Point, there is an attempted assassina­tion of the US President at a political event. The movie tells the same story several times from the perspective of different characters. Each one sees the event in a different way, which ultimately poses the question of what truth actually is?

Understanding a situation from different points of view can help you to make an informed interpretation of it and decide upon the potential actions you can use in your intervention.  To fully interpret a situation ask yourself “What’s going on here?”, “Who are the primary players?” and “What are they trying to achieve?”. By understanding different perspectives, you can make a much more informed decision about what you can do, your intervention or actions.

  1. Intervene

Once you have observed and interpreted a situation try to develop a hypothesis that will inform what intervention or actions you can take.  Then develop a plan and a backup plan. If the first plan doesn’t work, move on to the next one. Adaptability is key in your inter­vention. Use interventions as mini-experiments to prove or disprove your hypothesis.

Also use resources in your interventions that are available to you and within your control. This is not about solving world peace!  Your intervention will depend on your hypothesis, but always keep things simple. If you start to overcompli­cate or change too much it’s going to get messy.

Interventions can be as simple as changing furniture in an office to shift a dynamic, asking a peer to mentor one of your direct reports, or getting one of your employees to present something to senior stakeholders on your behalf.

The process of Observe, Interpret, Intervene is designed to be iterative, so use it in an ongoing way, re-tweaking as you go.

By observing, interpreting and intervening you are able to view things from different per­spectives, interpret situations in different ways and provide viable alternatives to achieve what you need to. Through expanded your consciousness to what’s going on around you and thinking differently about how to change or influence, your environment becomes a powerful tool when it comes to the way you lead.

Wendy Born helps leaders maximise their talent and strengths to achieve extraordinary results. As an engaging facilitator, coach and speaker, she works with executives, senior leaders and leadership teams to create high-performance organisations that deliver that WOW-factor. She is also the author of the book ‘The Languages of Leadership’ published by Major Street in February 2019.


Wendy Born

Wendy Born helps leaders maximise their talent and strengths to achieve extraordinary results. As an engaging, facilitator, coach and speaker, she works with executives, senior leaders and leadership teams to create high-performance organisations that deliver that WOW-factor. She is also the author of the new book ‘The Languages of Leadership’ (Major Street Publishing). Find out more at www.wendyborn.com.au



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