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3 Reasons YOU Need a Canary

Coal mining is tough stuff. Gritty. Dangerous. Anything but romantic—except for the cute little canaries carried deep into the mines to warn of invisible dangers. (FYI. Sadly, they now use “digital canaries.”)

Like coal miners, leaders face a danger that lurks as invisibly as odorless gas: unintentional culture shift.

The culture of your organization shapes everything from your ability to attract the right people to your ability to navigate complex challenges. It is built slowly through consistent behavior flowing from your values. It is resilient. Yet, because it is invisible, you need a canary who will sniff out trends and dangers you may not see.

Organizational culture is susceptible to unintended sabotage—by you and me as leaders.

I remember a profound canary moment with my leadership team. I had been courting an old friend to come and work with us. He and I had history that went way back although we’d been out of touch for some time. Coming into the final laps of the hiring process, I introduced him to my team. Unexpectedly, in one of our healthiest moments of collaborative wisdom, the team held up a virtual red flag and, in effect, said, “Gary, don’t you see, he doesn’t fit our culture.” They were right. I had missed it because of my friendship.

Organizational culture is that cumulative experience of our actual values working together. It gets expressed in who we hire. The way we communicate. The way we make decisions. How we share authority and power. How we handle conflict. What we prioritize and what don’t. How people are treated, empowered, and developed. And so much more.

Sometimes our culture needs to deliberately change and grow. However, unintentional or accidental culture change endangers organizational health and momentum.

Right now, as I write this, I am engaged with leaders from four different organizations who are making decisions that will shape the culture of their organization for a long time. Sadly, not all of them see the unintentional cultural damage their decisions are causing.

That’s why you and I need a canary.

We need people who can sniff out the long-term implications of our decisions or policies. We need those who recognize the need to pull a yellow card of warning about cultural violations.

Canaries are those who love us enough to risk relationship in order to help us understand the “danger” of our actions.

Three Specific Reasons YOU Need a Canary

1.) Your decisions make perfect sense to you.

You look at the needs or challenges you face and devise a solution. That’s what leaders do. The problem is, we become vested in the potential upside of the solution we create and become blind to any significant downside.

2.) Unintended consequences are simply hard to see.

The thing about the most dangerous unintended consequences is they often show up in an entirely different aspect of organizational life. For example, you think you are dealing with a financial policy, but down the road you find out your decision broke something about the operational momentum of your teams. The problem we need help with is every decision contains ripple effects no one sees coming.

3.) When you violate culture people feel you’ve broken trust.

Whether thinking about employees or congregational members, people said yes to your culture not just your mission. They said yes to a job, to the responsibilities they carry, and to trusting you because they were drawn to your culture. However, it is easy to take culture for granted and see any particular decision as a necessary exception. In those “necessary exceptions” we risk breaking the trust of our people. Trust that is broken is hard to recover.

How Do I Find A Canary?

  • Find someone with historical perspective. Someone without an agenda, but has been instrumental in shaping the culture of your organization.

  • Find someone you trust who is wired opposite from you. The kind of person who can offer “loyal opposition,” when it is needed.

  • Consider the newest people in the room. Newcomers see culture clearly during their early days, before they lose sight of the water they are swimming in.

  • If you are new to your organization, look for a “cultural interpreter.” They can tell you the backstory of why things are done the way they are and help you avoid landmines.

Right now, approaching summer of 2021, we are all recovering from a global pandemic which has short-circuited our imagination and stretched our rubber bands to the limit. I doubt many of us are in a place to make our best, unbiased decisions. More than ever we need a canary to go down with us into the trenches of leadership and help see the invisible dangers of our own thinking and decisions.

Who is your canary?

What have you learned about finding them?


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