Friday, March 9, 2012

Caring for the water in the fishbowl

In the Fish Bowl of Homosassa Springs, Florida by Old Shoe Woman
In the Fish Bowl of Homosassa Springs, Florida,
a photo by 
Old Shoe Woman on Flickr. 
 What does water in a fishbowl have to do with leadership?  Everything.  OK, fans of metaphor - this one's for you...

The water you're employees are swimming in is your culture.  Because they (and you) are swimming in it they don't necessarily notice it - until it gets murky and the oxygen is being sucked out of their environment.  Even then, they don't generally try to jump out.  They just keep swimming until the toxicity in the water kills them.

The dictionary calls culture "the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group."  You see it in company routines like

  1. Meetings  (what's on the agenda, who's invited, what the outputs are, who talks, etc.)
  2. Lunch breaks (or the lack thereof)
  3. Memos (how many, how long, distributed to whom and for what purposes)
  4. Decision making processes (top-down, collaborative, autocratic, wishy-washy, evidence based, etc.)
  5. Other processes (well-oiled machines or hairballs)
  6. Performance evaluations (objective, subjective, on time or late, scary or supportive)
  7. Staff development (occasional events, a way of life, or nonexistent)
Culture can also be revealed by examining the physical environment in a workplace:
  • Offices vs. cubicles vs. bullpens - indicators of status, allowances for privacy, accommodations for direct eyesight supervision
  • Colors - spirited, professional, industrial, planned, unplanned
  • Allocation and use of space - functional cul-de-sacs or proximity, common areas vs. departmental turf, who's got the better view
  • Housekeeping - tidy and well-maintained or cluttered and held together with spit and bailing wire
  • Attire and grooming of employees - degree of casualness and extent of variation from the c-level to the front lines
As a leader one of your main charges is to manage the climate - the water in your fishbowl - so that it contributes to employee engagement and ultimately customer loyalty.  You can ignore the water for a while without incident.  But beware - there are particles floating around out there that might look harmless right now, but that will suck the air right out of the place.  Doing a bit now and regularly thereafter will prevent you from having to take more drastic measures later to keep the fish swimming.

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