The first time you curse in front of your parents is a memorable scene. The room freezes and you feel a cold glare drilling into your head. The next words are of course the following:
Where did you learn that?
Chances are: you learned from your friends somewhere. As you grew up, you pick words, accents and mannerisms.
But this effect extends to far beyond just your choice of words.
Talented artists and athletes are often sent to top notch schools or camps as soon as possible. What’s the reason behind nourishing talent in a certain environment? Back in 2006, I got the chance to find out myself.
I don’t consider myself talented in the game of Go but during the summer of that year, I had the opportunity to train with student professionals in China. This actually crushed me in the beginning because there were these eight year olds better than the strongest 1% of American players. After I got over this depressing realization, I took advantage of where I was and skyrocketed my skills in just a month.
The funny thing is that I did not feel like I got better. I only realized that after I came back and played with people previously at my level. This effect is exactly what mentors want from their rising stars: normalized excellence.
The Nationals training camp for junior athletes. A world renown conservatory in Europe for musicians. Silicon Valley for tech entrepreneurs.
You can see the benefits of the right environment. But what about the potential harm of being in the wrong one?
Recognizing Where You Are
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
You usually get this advice when you’re moving to a new place or company. But what about the opposite? What if you don’t want to act like everyone else?
This is difficult to do and is one of the traits that define visionaries. We respect people like Van Gogh or Steve Jobs for having ideas beyond their time. But that is only in hindsight. In the present, society usually outcasts people like them.
Naturally, you would find it difficult to go against the crowd. The psychology of crowds has a long history and while there are many misconceptions surrounding the topic, it cannot be denied that humans are social creatures that are easily influenced by others, however irrational the ideas may be.
A key component is that you lose part of your individuality by submerging yourself into a group.
Think about a culture where the team has to either make enough sales/profit or get fired. What kind of environment does that create? How does that affect the people in it?
This simple formula is often the cause of business scandals and unethical behavior.
When you’re inside a culture, you almost never realize you’re slowly changing. Even if a behavior seems wrong to you at first, you will slowly normalize it.
Not all of this has to be “bad.” This is how the world works.
When you visit a website, the entire experience has been crafted to get something from you, whether it’s your time, clicks or money. The next time you’re at a casino, look around: everything there is designed to get you to keep betting. When you travel and experience different cultures, you wonder why you lived the way that you used to.
The bottom line is that your surroundings are always influencing you and that you are blind to it. After all, unless you’re outside looking in, your environment is training you to keep seeing the world through one perspective.
While this seems scary, being aware is the first step. On the flip side, how can you use this to improve your leadership?
Audit Those Around You
There is a saying that you are the average of the five people you are closest to.
The reason for that is biological: we want to fit in.
That is why we tend to become similar to those around us. We pick up their language, thought patterns, mannerisms, habits and perspectives. This forms the basis of culture and is why we succumb to crowds.
But what if you want to hack that to reach your goals? Then it makes sense to take a good look at the people closest to you. Are they people you want to be like? Does being like them align with your goals?
If the answer is no, then it may be in your best interest to not spend as much time with these people anymore.
This can be very difficult. After all, some of these people may be family or friends you spent a great deal of time with. But if they’re being toxic and dragging you down with them, part of you probably already knew that you had to cut them out.
You can rationalize all you want for keeping them around but ask yourself this question: what are these people costing you?
Predicting the Environment
The funny thing is that when it comes to major events, everyone plans the heck out of them. For what could the biggest client win for your company, you get everything down in your sales presentation to the littlest detail. For a wedding, everything must be perfect and you micromanage every single vendor to make that happen.
Yet when it comes to more subtle but prolonged experiences, very few do any planning. Instead most surrender themselves to the mercy of their environment. Why?
Have you ever tested what time of the day you are most productive in? What locations work best for each time of the day? What kind of effect do being in different places have on you?
Most people don’t consciously evaluate their environments and try to take advantage of them. So why not see if you can think ahead and see what works best for you?
There are times when you might find it a great idea to avoid the situation completely. If you know that one of your options will tempt you towards an end you will most certainly regret, then why even take a step in that direction?
However life usually doesn’t let you run away.
If you cannot avoid a certain environment, then it falls upon you to adapt to it. This is only possible if you planned for being in such a place.
The biggest environment leaders have to worry about is the culture they are trying to create or maintain.
When it comes down to it, put yourself in the shoes of your direct reports and reread this article. What do they think about the culture you’re creating?