Is Your Toxic Environment Leading To Toxic Behaviors?

In toxic, dysfunctional environments people will seek their own safety and best interests, no matter how great the vision of the organization.

Trust is not a by-product of a great organizational culture, rather, it serves as its very foundation. When trust is absent, when trust no longer exists, it is not only the organization that becomes toxic and dysfunctional, very often, so do many of the actions of the people within.

What we fail to realize, until it is often too late, is that most toxic and dysfunctional organizations have been infected with what is known as the ‘creep and seep.’ Which is when fear, mistrust, politics, agendas, ‘creep’ and slowly ‘seep‘ into the very fabric of the environment and culture. Which ultimately affects the attitudes and behaviors of all within the organization.

Cultures that were once open, supportive, even positive…quickly become closed, careful, and calculating.

People working within these toxic cultures, as the lack of clarity and trust dissipate, become more confused..and even antagonistic and angry. A culture that was once prosperous and positive can quickly degenerate into eating itself away and taking everyone within with it.

And it is within these toxic and dysfunctional environments and that we begin to see these toxic and dysfunctional behaviors begin to take hold and flourish…

  • The Chief: when cultures become toxic and dysfunctional, you quickly see the Chief syndrome go into full effect. Everyone wants to ‘be‘ instead of ‘do.’ There is this constant jockeying for position. Rank and title become the focus, over the vision and working together to achieve that vision. It becomes a ‘me‘ over a ‘we‘ environment, often pitting people against each other.
  • The Venter: the chaos and confusion that is inherent in toxic and dysfunctional environments and cultures has a wearing effect on people. People begin to fray at the edges and become worn. You even begin to see changes in naturally positive people, which often leads to unexpected and unusual outbursts. Especially as their frustration of and with the environment mounts and increases over time.
  • The Silencer: the fear and mistrust that invades toxic and dysfunctional environments makes any opportunity for positive conflict and idea sharing feeble, at best. Instead of high energy, productive meetings, only those jockeying for power and title hold the conversation. Everyone else holds their tongue. Meetings and teamwork lose their effectiveness as the best ideas are kept under wraps, never making it to the table. And eventually, it becomes about ‘whose‘ idea (most often a ‘Chief’), rather than the ‘best‘ idea. Slowing and destroying the effectiveness and momentum of the organization.
  • The Complainer: in toxic and dysfunctional cultures, the conversations move away from the work, from the vision, to the issues. Most conversations revolve around what is going on, than what is being done. Issues take the spotlight in this environment, taking large portions of time away from the productive conversations that could better move the organization forward. The environment becomes complaint focused yet, the culture does not allow for the complaints to be adequately addressed and remedied. They just become the elephant in the room.
  • The Resister: as toxic and dysfunctional environments become more entrenched in the culture of the organization…you begin to see more and more resisters. People begin to refuse and push back against the system. Sometimes in subtle, but often in not so subtle ways. People begin to look for ways to pawn duties off on others, or just outright refuse take any responsibility. Which inevitably destroys any and all forms of commitment and ownership.

Above are just a few of the behaviors that evolve out of toxic and dysfunctional environments and cultures. There are many more, from the pouter, to the point maker, and even the politicizer.

However, what we have to first realize and acknowledge is that many people don’t naturally behave or want to work in this manner. Toxic and dysfunctional cultures take their toll, creating environments that allow these behaviors to exist and flourish. People can only work in chaos and confusion for so long before these behaviors begin to make their appearance.

This is not to say that people are not responsible for their actions. But, it is to say that leaders are responsible for creating the conditions, the environments, and the cultures that allow the best work, as well as the best of people to spring forth.

Which is not to say that leaders can fix every organizational ill, but they are responsible for creating the conditions, the environment, the culture where people have the opportunity to be at their best.


“People will respond to the environment in which they operate.  The leaders decide what kind of environment they want to build.”  -Simon Sinek ‘Leaders Eat Last’


Catalyst Converter

If you are constantly pushing and pulling change, you are never creating any real momentum. Until you determine to step up to the edge of what scares you the most. Until you decide to take that leap. Change will stay incremental, and push and pull remain the tasks of the day.

As much as it may sometimes seem, avoiding change is not a tactic that people employ. Avoiding change is not a strategy. People don’t avoid change out of spite and a vengeful spirit.

Rather, they tend to disengage from the constant cajoling of a much more persistent and antagonistic villain, fear.

Catalyst converters realize this, deeply. They comprehend the paralyzing effect fear can have on people and organizations. Catalyst converters also understand, that at some level, fear will always be a part of us and those organizations.

Always in the background, waiting for its opportunity to take center stage in our mind and words. And while it can be driven back, pushed aside, even overcome, it never ever fully goes away. Always waiting. Always ready.

The fear of ‘what if‘ that constantly waits in the background for the chance to invade our thoughts and make us question what we are doing, and why. Fear creates the hesitation that paralyzes us into inaction.

Which is the reason catalyst converters constantly move us towards a ‘why’ so compelling that it allows, even forces us to push past those fears.

Catalysts converters don’t remove the fear of change, they just remind us that if it does not work there will a net there to catch you. It does not make change any less scary, but it does provide what we need to engage, face and overcome that fear. It gives us the impetus to begin.

Catalysts converters overcome the fear of the first step just by being who they are, by being there. Every step of the way. They serve as a constant source of support. They invigorate us to stay the course. They compel us forward.

Catalysts converters create momentum, they make us see how much more wonderful it could be if we just start, if we just begin to move towards that place. What a better world, a better organization, a better team, a better life it can and will be.

They don’t deny that the journey will be difficult and fraught many hardships, but they never let you forget that they will be right there with you.  

And you know that you can trust and count on that, every step of the way.

Catalysts converters are all in. They are along for the whole ride, especially when the seas are rough and the road is rocky. They will be there to catch you when you stumble, pick you up and dust you off when you fall, and spur you on when you don’t believe you have another step left in you. Catalysts converters are there when retreat is the only word that you can hear ringing inside your head.

Being a catalyst converter, means that it is never enough to just plant the seeds of change.

True catalyst converters water, nourish and care for those seeds, making sure that they grow and flourish. What they spread, they tend.

They change the lives of those around them so deeply that they are compelled to become catalysts in their own right. They inspire commitment, not just to the organizational vision, but to creating their own individual vision for bettering the world around them.

Catalyst converters understand that it is not just about moving in and through the world that we live in each and every day.

It is about touching that world and those around you. It is about not only the imprints and impressions that you leave on others, but the way that you fill those those imprints and impressions.

It is ultimately about leaving the world in a better place and those around you in a better condition than they were before you touched and changed them.

Nodes, Networks And The Frustration Of Visionless Leadership

“A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. A system must have an aim. Without the aim, there is no system.”  -W. Edwards Deming

In any system, networks and nodes serve as the pathways and hubs that determine the vitality and flow of any organization. When this is not functioning effectively or breaks down on any level, the overall strength and well-being of the organization suffers.

All of which expand and flourish or wither and expire at the hands of leadership…

To look at this a little deeper, let’s begin with an idea or reference point of what a node and network are within an organization and how they can serve to build up and expand, as well as close off and diminish the growth and capacity of an organization.

According to Google, a node is a point at which lines or pathways intersect or branch; a central or connecting point. It is also the part of a plant stem from which one or more leaves emerge, often forming a slight swelling or knob.

Google provides this definition of a network as, “an arrangement of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines. A group or system of interconnected people or things.

Which for leaders, means that it is not just necessary to understand that both networks and nodes are vital for a strong and high functioning organization, it is in the knowing of how they work both individually and in tandem to increase the capacity and strength of the organization.

And for leaders, it begins with acknowledging the power that a node serves as a positive or negative force within this system.

The node is the hub for the entire organizational system. It can serve as a conduit for feeding the entire network, or as the bottleneck that slows down the flow or overall information and learning pipeline to the network.

Both of which are ultimately determined by the leadership of the organization…

Very often, leaders can work as a reservoir, rather than a river of learning. What comes into the node, does not always flow outward and across the network in any type of effective manner.

And when there is a lack of clarity, communication, and learning flowing from the nodes throughout the network, when it bottlenecks and does not flow freely within the organization, it slows the pace of progress, it slows the pace of learning.

Which eventually builds walls, creates silos, frustration, confusion, and even chaos within the network.

When leaders only exist within the node and struggle to comprehend the entirety and complexity of the network, they often fail to see how their decisions and actions influence and impact the system. When leaders are unable to see beyond the level of the node, they are unable to comprehend how the lack of flow, be that clarity, communication, or learning, then they fail to visualize how they are cutting off the rest of the network from the vital information necessary to create and feed an organization in vital and healthy ways.

And unfortunately, as the node grows and expands at the cost of the network, the network becomes like dying vines, withering throughout as well as from the outside in.

Whereas, in strong and healthy organizations, leaders not only create a strong vision that flows through the nodes and networks as a beacon of focus for the organization, but recognize that the nodes serve as a hub to continually and positively feed the network through ongoing communication and learning. The node serves as a constant source of support.

The node becomes a vital source of nutrients for the network. Pushing out, rather than pulling in. A radiant hub and flow of learning, information, and communication, constantly feeding the network, expanding its size, capacity, and capabilities. Eventually creating more nodes, as well as empowering and expanding the entirety of the network.

Eventually, leading to strong systems and even stronger organizations.

At all levels…

“The Learning Organization” Frontloading #ATPLC Chat 2/13/14

While educational chats can be wonderful collaborative learning opportunities and experiences, 140 spaces can, at times be a bit limiting and confining. So, with that thought, I determined that it might be a good opportunity to frontload the topic and the questions for our #atplc chat this Thursday evening.

After much mental debate on a variety of topics and ideas that I would thoroughly enjoy exploring and engaging, I decided upon placing the focus for our chat on organizational learning and learning as an organization.

Which the DuFours and Eaker refer to in Learning by Doing as a Learning Organization. It is in Learning by Doing, they provide us with the following definition of a Learning Organization as a place, ”where people continually expand their capacities to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”  (Senge, 1990, p. 3)

So for a Learning Organization to truly live out its mission, learning has to be at the very core of all they do and are. And that requires learning to exist at all levels of the educational community, from the students, to parents, teachers, administrators, staff, and stakeholders.

Which means that true Learning Organizations are determined to cascade learning across the entire organization, at all levels… 

Yet, very often we have a tendency to narrow our focus only to the learning of our students, but that is not enough. We have to include the ongoing growth and learning of the adults in our system, if we are ever to exist as a true Learning Organization.

And if we are going to expand the capacity of all, then we need to create an environment that allows for systemic learning and growth to occur at all levels of the organization. It is not just about a haphazard sharing of an article, or digging into a great book you have read, or presenting the highlights at Monday’s staff meeting of a conference you attended, it requires systemic planning and processes if we are to attain deep learning at an organizational level.

And it requires leadership to create the conditions and pathways for that learning to occur across the organization…

Or as the DuFours and Eaker maintain in Learning by Doing, it requires conditions that allow for “perpetual curiosity“, “engaging in ongoing study” and “constant reflective practice.”

To create a true Learning Organization and engage in ongoing organizational learning necessitates the leadership to create the path. Which requires the leaders of these organizations to engage in ‘around the corner’ thinking. Which means leaders of an Learning Organization have to move beyond ‘just in time’ thinking.

Learning Organization leaders are constantly pushing ahead and planting the seeds that allow change and growth to occur across the organization. They are incessantly moving the learning conversation forward.

And for that, Learning Organization leaders need to be out in front, engaging in, making themselves aware, as well as deciphering what is coming and necessary learnings for the benefit and betterment of the organization.

For all of this to happen, leaders need to be learners. Curators of their own professional growth… 

They have to be able to control the pipeline of information so that it is less of a fire hose and more of a steady stream of ideas and learning for their organization. When leaders lack the awareness and notice to control this, they end up losing more ideas than they engage. Which eventually hurts and halts their progress and growth as a Learning Organization. The goal is not to overwhelm, but to create ongoing progress.

Learning Organization leaders understand this, as well as acknowledging the busy and hectic schedules of those they lead. So they connect with that knowledge and awareness to make sure that they are neither giving too much or too little learning, as well as providing clarity and setting the foundation for the why. It has to make sense, the learning has to connect to a bigger picture or vision.

Otherwise, when leadership provides the learning in unconnected bits and pieces, they destroy the learning flow and the process becomes disjointed and causes more chaos than growth.

Learning across the organization has to be released in engaging and empowering ways that allow those in the organization to engage the learning in meaningful and fruitful ways.

With that said, here are the questions for Thursday’s #atplc chat:

  1. If learning is at the heart or core of a Learning Organization, how are you creating and building that core in your organization?
  2. Time, necessity and curiosity set the stage for learning, how do you create and attend to those in your organization? (We will look at all three individually)
  3. What systems or processes are in place to make sure that the learning is tied to the vision, and not disjointed and reactive in nature?
  4. As a Learning Organization leader, you need to engage ‘around the corner’ thinking, how do you push your professional learning and growth?
  5. In Learning by Doing they discuss ‘perpetual curiosity‘, ‘ongoing study‘, ‘constant reflection‘ how do you engage your organization in these three areas?
  6. A Learning Organization is as much a mindset as it is a thing, how do you create that type of mindset within your organization?

Thank you. Looking forward to learning with everyone.

Engaging and Sustaining Creativity and Innovation: Part 3

“Innovation is scary. After all, no one knows what the outcome will be. How do you persuade people to take the leap and trust that this is the way to go?  -David Kelley via TED

Disruption. Ingenuity. Imagination. Inventiveness. Experimentation. Prototyping. Failure. Perseverance. Connecting Dots. Cross-Pollinating. Risk-Taking.

All of which are associated with creativity and innovation…

Each one requiring us to stretch and push ourselves out and beyond our current comfort zones.

Terms that we instantly associate with those innovative organizations that constantly carry the creative torch – Ideo, Google, Starbucks, Amazon, Nike, Apple, and Intuit – just to name a few.

And what we find when we broadly scan these creative and innovative companies to determine what sets them apart, creative and innovative leaders pushing these processes within and across all levels of their organization.

In their Forbes article, How Innovative Leaders Maintain Their Edge, Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen found that, “successful leaders personally understand how innovation happens and they try to imprint their behaviors as processes and philosophies within their organization.” 

They add…“Put simply, leaders at the top of this year’s most innovative company list behave innovatively. But putting innovators at high levels is not enough to create and sustain and innovation premium. It’s necessary, but not sufficient, for organizational success.”

And their point is well taken, it is not enough for the leader to be creative and innovative, it has to cascade across the organization if it is to flourish and grow. To be a true organizational advantage.

Which means we not only have to look at how to build up what the Tom and David Kelley refer to as the “creative confidence” of each individual in the organization, leaders have to create models that engage and sustain it as an ongoing process.

So as we scan the strategies shared from those innovative organizations, or the process revelations provided from such creative leaders as Tom Kelley, David Kelley, Tim Brown, Tina Seelig, Teresa Amabile, Keith Sawyer, David Burkus, Faisal Hoque, or the articles shared from Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc., and Fast Company, we have to determine if there are some basic similarities in what they believe creates and sustains creativity and innovation within our organizations.

As well as understanding that we may not have the time or space here to explore all of their ideas, strategies, and processes…

But with the understanding that there may be a few surface level take-aways that help us on the journey to make our organizations more creative and innovative.  

Let’s explore just a few;

  • Ideas, creativity, innovation is not confined to a select few that were born with the ‘creative gene.’ All three can come from anywhere and anyone. When leaders are open to this…we have a better opportunity to cascade both creativity and innovation at all levels of the organization. It requires openness, awareness, listening, and the ability to embrace the ideas of others.
  • Constraints don’t constrain rather, they actually push creativity and innovation within an organization. Leaders have to determine the constraints necessary to engage the creative juices of their people.  Constraints are like positive conflict, they bring people into the process and give them something push back on.
  • Failure is a by-product of the creative and innovative process. If we are going to engage our ideas, if we are going to experiment, if we are going to push past our comfort zone and the status quo, we will experience some failure. What is important is the ability of the organization to understand that failure will be part of the process if we are going to push past our boundaries but, if we learn and rebound quickly from those failures, progress then becomes a by-product of failure.
  • Things like empathy, emotional intelligence, relationships and connection are incredibly important to creating a culture that embraces the processes that lead to increased levels of creativity and innovation. If we are going to be able to experiment more, face failure, create positive learning and feedback loops, and push forward as more agile organizations, we have to have the leadership, environment and culture that will allow these processes to grow and flourish at all levels. Which requires greater levels of  empathy, emotional intelligence, as well as stronger relationships and connections.

In the end, while an ongoing supply of ideas is vital to creating and sustaining creativity and innovation in our organizations, it really and truly comes down to the ‘human‘ factor.

How human are our organizations? How do we care, support, invest, and raise up those in our organizations?

We understand that creativity and innovation is about engaging the thinking and ideas of those we lead, but it is about so much more. It is about creating the relationships and connections that bring forth the thinking and ideas that allow our institutions and organizations to become and remain creative and innovative.

It is the ‘humanness‘ of our organizations that will eventually allow us to create and sustain the creativity and innovation necessary to move forward confidently into the chaos and turbulence of an unknown and constantly changing world.

It takes courage to leave the land of certain outcomes...  -Tom and David Kelley Creative Confidence

One Door – Two Worlds

In toxic and dysfunctional environments, people will seek their own safety and best interests, no matter how great the vision of the organization.

There is a door that stands at the front of every organization and institution that leads to two very different worlds.

One leads to a world that is alive with energy and ideas and an inherent absence of fear. It is buzzing with chatter, an incessant collaborative spirit of creating and sharing cascades across the environment. And there is this feeling of joy. Of happiness. A spirit of giving and support. And it fills this world.

And unfortunately, that very same door can lead to a second and much darker world…

A world that is much quieter, and careful. A world where people are mindful to not make mistakes. To keep a low profile, to fly under the radar. To not make waves. You world where you can feel the tension in the air, and it is thick. The feeling of fear permeates the entire environment. A world mired in silos, jealousy, personal agendas, hidden agendas, and self-interest.

The interesting thing to consider in regards to these very different worlds, they can both be accessed through the very same door.

Yet, we have a choice. We can decide on which world we want to walk into, what world we want to work and live in. We determine that doorway. The pathway is held within our grasp.

For the doorway that determines which world we will walk into each and every day…leadership.

Our leaders determine the tenor of our organizations, plain and simple.

And it begins with the doormat that each leader sets out in front, a doormat that determines which world we will enter. Bright and transparent, or cold and closed. All determined by whether the greeting boldly written and awaiting you upon that doormat exists…TRUST.

Trust determines which door we walk through and what world we walk into…

What we often fail to understand is that trust is the determiner to what kind of environment and culture that will exist within our organizations. And for that, we have a choice, on which world we will create. Which world we will make.

Ultimately, leaders create the environment. They determine the world their people will walk into.

And it all begins with trust…

“People will respond to the environment in which they operate. The leaders decide what kind of environment they want to build.”  -Simon Sinek ‘Leaders Eat Last’

Does Your Data Have A Story?

Data without a story, lacks the emotion and soul to have the influence necessary to drive any type of dedicated commitment…

One of the things that pulls us in and quickly captures our heart and mind is a great story. Especially one of overcoming the odds…

Whether we are watching American Idol or the Olympics, very often we love the story of how the people got there, how they climbed over obstacles and insurmountable odds to be there, than the actual performance itself. The performance is actually the icing, as the story serves as the cake.

In fact, their story actually makes the performance that much better. That much more captivating.

Crunching numbers, no matter how enticing you make them, lacks the soul and influence to create real influence and commitment. Numbers don’t have the capacity to capture your heart and mind. And real influence and commitment takes both, the heart and the mind.

It is only when we attach those stories to the data, to the numbers, that we capture and touch people. Often, to their very core. And that is where real influence and commitment begin…

With the story, not the data.

When data loses the face of those we are supposed to serve and support, people become just another metric to be measured and managed.