The Canary in Your Coal Mine

Within small companies, and within departments of larger organizations, there is a canary every manager should watch like a hawk. This canary could be the receptionist, the salesperson, the bookkeeper, the shipper, one of the production people, or even one of the other managers. Management should keep a close eye on whoever it is because this person will give them the fastest feedback they’ll get on the overall psychological well-being of the company.

One of management’s major tasks is to continually improve the company’s culture. They do this by first defining what they consider to be their ideal culture. “This is a cool place to work.” “We are professionals here.” “What a fun place to work!” “We are a socially responsible organization.” “We do no harm.” Etc.

Once they have defined their moniker, they then add the quality ingredients, such as, “Here at Seismic Muffins Inc., we pride ourselves on team spirit, personal and professional integrity, mutual respect, trust, dignity, strong ethics, the desire to succeed and high morale.” The perception begins to take shape.

Next, they package it for the rank and file: “This is the best company to work for.” “We are the thought-leaders in our field.” “We stand head and shoulders over our competition.” “This is the place to work.” “Quality is Job One.”

Setting such culture goals is very admirable, but how can management steer the crew in the right direction to achieve them? The vast majority of organizations make feeble attempts at this by posting vision statements, mission statements, value statements, code of ethics charts, inspirational posters; creating impressive sounding employee job descriptions, publishing internal newsletters, circulating messages from the president, conducting employee satisfaction surveys, holding Friday group lunches and/or Monday morning huddles, doling out Employee of the Month awards, having the manager walk-around asking “Hey, how’s it going?” or some other equally inane question, and some companies even install swings and slides (for use at recess times), thinking these are going to work. But sadly they all have very little or no effect – and in many cases, their impacts are negative.

So what can management actually do to move everyone towards their stated goal? In addition to walking the walk themselves, the first step they need to take is to determine where the state of the company’s culture right now. How are people behaving versus how should they be behaving? “What’s our ‘are’? Once we know this, we can then determine the gap between ‘are’ and ‘should’”.

Finding the ‘are’ can consume a lot of time, resources and money. Sadly, most companies perceive this and conclude it’s not worth it. But for those that do, here is a quick and simple way to achieve a good approximation of ‘are’:

Speak with every employee at some length about aspects of the company and when you find one person whose principles, ethics, values and professionalism resonate with your ‘should’, you’ve found your canary. Monitor this person closely and when you see changes in the tone of his or her comments, humour, demeanour, and/or overall happiness - whether they are positive or negative - find out what’s causing them. Actively search for these signals as they can be quite subtle. It takes a keen eye and an alert ear to detect them and it takes a focused mind to interpret them.

Once you are satisfied you have your clues, investigate all of them. You may find some of the root causes are unrelated to the business per se, but rather pertain to the person’s personal life instead, so make sure you sort these out quickly.

If the causes are business rated, you at least know the gap is moving – either toward or away from your defined goal – and you can immediately take whatever action is required.

So, how healthy is the culture in your company? Before you answer, find your canary and start watching!