Increase Influence; Innovate the Environment

“Rarely does the average person conceive of changing the physical world as a way of changing human behavior.  We see that others are misbehaving, and we look to change them, not their environment.  Caught up in the human side of things, we completely miss the impact of subtle yet powerful sources such as the size of a room or the impact of a chair.  Consequently, one of our most powerful sources of influence (the physical environment) is often the least used because it’s the least noticeable.”  -Kerry Patterson The Influencer

Over the last year there have been just snippets, a few articles and videos here and there dedicated to the physical environments of our schools and classrooms.  As we question whether our instructional methods are fitting to our changing times, we also have to determine if our physical environments are conducive to supporting learning in the 21st century.  Environment is not about whether we are using rows or group seating in our classrooms; it is about taking a deep and reflective look at the environment of our entire organization.  And being able to decipher what message our organization’s physical environment is sending…

Physical environment is a vital, important and often forgotten influencer on our people and the work in our organizations.  Responsible leaders must begin to take notice of our environment.  It is necessity of modern leadership.  Successful organizations such as Starbucks and Google have long understood the importance of physical environment and have put emphasis into its creation within their organizations.  They see the critical value of placing time and effort into designing a physical environment that supports behaviors aligned with and towards their vision as an organization.

As educational institutions and organizations, we have gained many valuable leadership lessons from our business counterparts, yet we lag behind in our ability to create physical environments that are changing and morphing towards a vision of a 21st century learning organization.

However, before we move towards our vision of what a 21st century learning organization should look like, we have to determine what physical factors in our current environment are inhibiting our people and our work throughout our organizations.

It begins by understanding that our physical work environment is an integral part of our lives.  Yet, many times we don’t recognize it, we don’t take notice of it, and when we do, most often we feel that we have no control over changing and/or recreating it.  And we need to rethink that approach in our organizations…

We often forget that our environment has impact and influence over us.  We need to leverage our ability to control our physical environment and use it as an influencer, if we are to improve our ability to function at high levels within our organizations.

In the Influencer, Kerry Patterson and fellow authors pinpoint our environment as a vital factor of influence we often fail to consider or recognize in our organizations.  We view our physical environment as something that just is, rather than a changeable and influential force that we can mold, recreate, and utilize for our benefit.  As Patterson puts it, we can and need to “move away from human influence altogether and examine how nonhuman forces – the world of buildings, space, sound, sight, and so forth – can be brought to bear in an influence strategy.”

As leaders, we rather place our emphasis and attention on the work we do and the people we serve.  Which, don’t get me wrong, is of the highest importance for our leadership.  However, if we fail to understand that the physical environment that we place our people in holds influence over the work and interactions, then we may very well fail to get the best out of our people and their work.

We must understand and recognize the impact of our physical environment on our choices and how it affects how we do the things we do.  Whether it is our classroom arrangements, where we place the principals office in the main building, how we partition off the front office staff from parents and students, it all sends a message to those in our organization and those who interact within our organization’s community.  It sends a message out and affects how we operate within.  And, if we want those interactions to be positive, we have to make sure that the physical environment we place others in when interacting with our organization are supportive of those behaviors.  Whether that be students, parents, staff or community members.

When we take stock of our environment, when we start to look deeply at the messages our physical environment may be sending out, we start to ask questions that create a better organization.  What messages do our classrooms send to our students and teachers?  What message does our front office send to our learning community?  Is it inviting?  Or, is it closed-off and stand-offish.  Whether we see it, whether we want to recognize it, our physical environment sends a very clear message to others on what we are about and how we will interact.

Awareness that the message and expectations from leadership are either supported or inhibited by the physical environment of our organization.  For example, proponents of Professional Learning Communities know the importance of collaboration, and must create a physical environment conducive to supporting this process.  When leadership touts the benefits of collaboration and scatter the teachers of grade level teams across the campus, they have just sent the message to those that are affected most that collaboration is not as important as we propose.  When we don’t take the physical environment into account, we often inhibit the very things we are working so diligently to accomplish.

And, as we reflect on this example for creating collaboration within our PLCs, of when it doesn’t work, our frustrations turn towards the human side and we wonder why our teams are fighting such a great strategy for improving teaching and learning.  When in fact, we set up a physical environment that inhibits collaboration.  We just don’t see or recognize it.  We fail to acknowledge that our leadership decisions have made it physically difficult for the process to take hold and flourish.  We fail to see the physical environment we created as the roadblock.

As educational leaders, it may behoove us to strap on a new lens.  A new perspective.  To take a new and fresh look at our organization from a student, a parent, a community member view, to see it from their lens or perspective.  What messages are being sent?  What is the overall look of your campus, is it clean, the grass mowed, the bushes trimmed, or does it look run-down and unkept?

What message do you feel when you take a stroll down your hallways?  What message reaches out to you when you enter your classrooms?

Our environment doesn’t often register with us, at least on a deep level.  We have a superficial view of our physical environment.  It is more than current work on the walls of our classrooms and hallways, it is about the message our physical environment sends out to each and every student, parent, and staff member that walks our hallways and sit in our classrooms each and every day.

We are best reminded of this example from Patterson’s Influencer

“Kelling, a criminologist and originator of the ‘broken window theory’ of crime, argued that disordered surroundings send out an unspoken but powerful message that encourages antisocial behavior.”  Kelling is making a powerful argument that physical environments can have a tremendous influence on the behavior of people.  Both positive and negative.  It requires us to determine if our physical environment is in alignment with our vision, with our expectations, of what we are trying to accomplish, and it starts in our parking lot, in our front office, on our playground, in our hallways, our cafeteria’s, and most definitely, our classrooms and staff lounge.  We must determine if our physical environment is in alignment with our human message, and do the two align?

I would like to leave you with a few quotes from Patterson’s Influencer to reflect upon as you determine how your physical environment affects your organization…

“Festinger discovered that the frequency and quality of human interaction is largely a function of physical environment.”

“At the corporate level, when employees don’t meet and chat (getting to know one another and jointly working on problems), bad things happen.  Silos form and in-fighting reigns.  Employees start labeling others with ugly terms such as ‘them’ and ‘they’ – meaning the bad people ‘out there’ whom they rarely see and who are surely the cause of most of the problems they experience.”

“If you want to predict who doesn’t trust or get along with whom in a company, take out a tape measure.”

“Propinquity is used to foster relationships.  When you assign people interdependent roles and then put them in close proximity, you increase the chance that relationships that had once been the bane of their existence are now a big part of their personal transformation.”

“Most people don’t lament this loss, but they should.  When people casually bump into each other at work, they ask questions, share ideas, and surprisingly often come up with solutions to problems.”

Starbucks gets it.  Google gets it.  And Apple got it.  And with that last quote it is very clear that Steve Jobs understood the importance of physical environment.  Is it any wonder that he only allowed one bathroom to be built in the Apple headquarters?  He knew that it would cause people to ‘bump’ into each other, resulting in better ideas and better solutions.  Great organizations get it.  Great leaders get it.

Maybe it is worth a second look…


4 thoughts on “Increase Influence; Innovate the Environment

  1. I always find it astounding when we have things called “teaching adult learners.” I wonder how much different we learn when we are 15 or 55? If you really want to put yourself in the position of someone else, think of how you like learning, and create that environment for the kids. The reality is that school budgets won’t allow for a mass change. How do we use what we have to improve learning and facilitate it? It is great to have a vision of where you are going and to ensure you make no more purchases of terrible furniture and space, but focus on what you can do now. Too many schools are focusing on something that can be done 5 years from now. That doesn’t help the kid that is sitting in your school at their uncomfortable desk today.

    Just my two cents.

  2. Another great post! I have thought about this a lot over the years. My first question now, when booking a training (or meeting) room, is – How many bare walls do you have? I use a lot of flip charts and ask people to get up and “do” things. Often that something is to work with a small group and create a map or other visual.. I need wall space.

    I also need people to be able to see one another so my next question is – Do you have rectangular tables so we can arrange them in a square or horseshoe so we can all see one another? You would think round tables would be good but they create silos.

    Physical environment is important and like George suggests there is sometimes only so much we can do. Try as I might hotels will not listen to me about their meeting rooms any more than schools listen to teachers about classroom layout. Money is often the reason and I get that.

    We can adapt though. We can do the best we can and one way of doing that is enlisting the help of our learners in co-creating (by adaption) our learning environments. That is true for physical and emotional environments.

    We can ask at the beginning – Is this a safe environment for learning? Is this a comfortable space for learning? Is this an energizing place for learning? What can we do to make this safer and more comfortable and energizing? What are you willing and able to do to make this safe, comfortable, energizing, etc? What do you need me to do to make this work for you?

    How often do we ask those questions? And throughout any learning event, how often do we ask for feedback? Is this working for you? Are we going too fast? Are we going too slow? What can do we differently? Do you feel respected, heard and valued? Those are the questions we could be asking, from preschool to grad school. This is true for online learning as well.

    I used to start every new group of learners off by sharing my metaphor. I was the coach and this was practice. Their job was to take risks and try new things my job was to toss out the balls and help them learn new plays. If the balls were too high or too low they needed to tell me so I could adjust.

    Peter Block, in his book Community, says that the core task of leaders is to create the conditions for civic participation or institutional engagement. Perhaps the core task of educators is to create the environmental and emotional conditions for learning.

    On a related note, I recently went to a meeting at a school district office. They had exactly one parking stall for visitors. Message received. Yes, environment matters!

  3. This is an issue that I have tried to address for a while now. It is probably something that has “rubbed off” on me from my elementary teaching wife. She has long now created very warm, friendly and comfortable environments for her students and they have often looked more like family rooms than classrooms. While I had first wondered why she spent so much time and money creating this environment, as I became as administrator and began to visit more rooms, what I witnessed was that teachers with these environments often had fewer problems with their students and amazingly often had better assessment scores (not that those are the most important things). In my last district I found a few teachers that were willing to try the exercise balls as chairs. From there we progressed to a teacher that was willing to try standing tables. I found a set of cafe tables online that could wind up or down to the needed height. While they started as a fad for the kids in the class, and everyone wanted them, by the end of the year only one table was at standing height with about 4 of the 25 kids standing at it. Six of the other students sat in bean bag chairs, and 4 other students sat in the patio furniture in the rooms. It was a strange room for school board members to walk into but once again, it was a classroom that I didn’t need to go into for behavior problems at all that year.

    Why don’t we address this problem more often? I realize it would cost a large amount of money to redesign current buildings that have been annoyingly designed in the factory style model. Still, there are some little things we could do to make the environment more comfortable and inviting to students and teachers. An environment that is more conducive to learning and collaboration. I have always liked the video of this school design model and I think it would be more costly for districts to develop and even remodel. That is, if it was actually important to us that environment could make a difference.

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