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What Do I Do If No One Else Is Doing It? Clean Up Your Own Yard First

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I use two different approaches when facilitating learning with leaders and independent contributors. What I have come across over the years in many learning events is that leaders and independent contributors share some of the same questions, concerns, and needs.

This is very apparent when we are doing a trust learning event. It doesn’t matter if I’m working with leaders or independent contributors I always get the question, if I want to build trust on my team or with my people and no one trusts each other, how do I do it?

Kick-in-the-face feedback

Years ago when I decided to go into academia, I got a job as an enrollment counselor for a university. I figured why not start in the call center to get a holistic view of how this university works.

I filled an empty spot on an existing team of enrollment counselors. There were about 20 enrollment teams with about 16 people per team. It didn’t take me long to learn that my team was consistently ranked in the bottom four out of the 20 teams for enrollments. It also didn’t take me long to figure out why.

One day my manager called me into her office. She told me that she hired me because I had many years of experience managing teams and was hoping I could be an asset to her team. However, she said, after watching you, you’re as toxic as everyone else on the team, why?

There’s the kick in the face that started all of it. I thought for a minute and asked what she was seeing. She told me that I was negative, I was complaining about everything, and I seemed to be a leading factor in influencing everyone else’s behavior on the team. Okay, that hurt, but I asked.

I asked her if she saw the behaviors in others on the team that I was exhibiting. She said yes, she also said, in your defense, this challenge existed before you got to the team, you just seem to encourage it more. I thought for a minute and realized I was influencing negative groupthink. I asked her for 24 hours to think about what she said and went back to my desk to observe my behavior.

24 hours changed everything

In those 24 hours, I realized she was right. I came up with a plan to change my behavior banking on the idea that I could change negative groupthink to positive groupthink. My manager liked my plan and at the next team meeting, she asked me to share it. 

During the meeting I went up to the whiteboard, I told everyone in the meeting that I was going to list everything that annoyed me about my job, should have seen the looks on their faces when I said that. As I was listing the items other people started adding things to the list. We ended up with about 32 annoying items, including some directed at our manager. Our manager knew this might happen and told me if it did roll with it she would accept accountability for her behaviors if I was accepting accountability for mine, and guarantee no retaliation towards anyone, and she told this to the team at the start of the conversation.

The next thing I did was grab an eraser look at the team and ask which items can we remove from the list because we had no control over the item. Our manager wrote down the items directed towards her and said she would work on these so we could remove that feedback from the list. 

When we were done erasing, we had five items left. Five items out of 32 that we had total control over and all five were behavior-based, in other words, we were responsible for how we acted and how others saw us. It was time to clean up my yard.

Influence the change

I looked at the team and said that I was going to take a stance right now and clean up my yard by stopping my negativity. I knew I couldn’t change anyone else’s behaviors, but could I influence behavior change in others through my actions?

I told the team I was going back to my desk and working on changing my behaviors, I told them to feel free to point out to me when I was slipping back to old behaviors. Over the next several weeks they pointed out many times when I slipped up. But then it began to happen, slowly. 

As my attitude improved, so did my ability to enroll and retain students. My team members who sat next to me saw what was happening and started to clean up their yards, and the ones next to them started the cleaning process, and next to them, and eventually almost the whole team did. I say almost the whole team because there will always be a few holdouts who refuse to change and eventually leave the team one way or another.

Four to five months later our team started making upward progress and started to show up in the top four teams in the department. One Friday afternoon our director walked into our manager’s office and closed the door. About 30 minutes later the director came out and walked over to my desk. The director looked at me and told me to have all of my stuff packed up by the end of the day, with a straight face and she paused for dramatic effect, insert heart attack here, I looked at my manager who was smiling at me, team members were gasping, then she proceeds to say, on Monday I was to report to the training department. My new job was to train everyone how to do what I do. 

Exercise | Deliberate practice – clean up your yard

Ever since that fateful day at the university, clean up your yard has been my go-to response to anyone who tells me no one else is doing it, or I don’t know where to start. In all of the years doing learning events I tell everyone that they can lead no matter what chair they sit in and you do it by cleaning up your yard first. 

Many behavioral experts will tell us that we can’t change anyone’s behavior. Influencers will tell us we can change the environment which will allow others to change their behavior only if they want to change.

If you want to influence change start by changing your behaviors first and stick to it. Influencers are successful and respected when they are working for the common good of the group, not for personal gain, as some on the internet do.  

It takes time to clean up your yard because you may be dealing with old embedded habits and it’s worth it if you’re wanting to make a change. The real challenge is sustaining the practice. Many people will fight change including changing their behaviors by blowing their leaves into your yard and expecting you to clean it up. Stay focused on your yard, always.

You may have to take the first step, keep your yard clean no matter what your neighbors are doing. Time is your ally and so is deliberate practice. If you want trust, respect, or healthy communication on your team, then demonstrate behaviors that support and encourage what you want to see between you and others you work with. You never know who’s watching you. 

Don’t wait for tomorrow, tomorrow never comes. What you have is today and this is the best time to begin anything.

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