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Scene One:  He’s done eating his dinner.  He gets up and walks to the kitchen with his plate.  His intention is to place his dish into the dishwasher but, as he enters the kitchen he sees a pile of dirty dishes on the counter.  With a slight hesitation, he decides to add to the pile with his dish …

Scene Two:  She leaves the office to go have a cigarette.  She lights up and takes a few drags, contemplating the afternoon’s meeting.  As she takes her last drag, she starts walking toward the ashtray a few paces down the walk but, on her way, she sees dozens of butts on the walkway.  With a slight hesitation, she decides to cut her walk short, drops her cigarette and steps on it to put it out, turns, and returns to the office.

What do you think about this?  Dirty dishes and cigarette butts?

Have we found two people in these two scenes that just don’t give a shit?

Okay, I agree, that’s too strong; maybe they are just uncommitted, or weak willed, or just plain lazy.

Shame on them, right?

Shame on us.  For judging.  For there is something going on here that is very significant, and very important.

If you can’t relate to either of those actors in those scenes, then maybe it’s the scenes that don’t resonate, and that’s understandable.  Imagine a scene closer to you, more realistic for your day to day.

But I’ll bet the behavior resonates.  Because we are all subject to the same “force” that those two people were subject to.

These two people are not slugs!  They are not people of poor character.  They are really a lot like us.  Like you and me.

Our behavior is — substantially — a function of our environment.

I’m not saying our behavior is determined by our environment; only influenced.

This is hard to accept, perhaps.  Hard or not, it is real.

We see dirty dishes, or cigarette butts, and we respond with a changed action, one inconsistent with our intention.

What’s really significant is that, once we realize the predominance of this effect, we get stronger.  We can start to resist.

And it gets better yet; once we realize this dynamic, we realize that when we place the first dirty dish on the counter, or throw the first cigarette butt on the walk, we are largely responsible for all the others that will undoubtedly follow.  And with the knowledge of that responsibility, we are able to respond differently.  We are able to behave consistent with our values, and with our character.

I’m not making this up.  There is significant research.  One place to start might be to check out broken windows.

Lastly, three points, specifically for leaders.

First:  While you are subject to the same environmental influences as the rest of us, you have the differentiating ability to resist, push through, overcome, in the face of the strongest of environmental influences that the rest of us succumb to.  That is where your power truly comes from, not from rank, position, title, or status.

Second:  If you want to change our behavior, change our environment.  If you want us to collaborate more, create an environment that has collaborative spaces and tools.  If you want us to innovate more, create an environment that stimulates and challenges.  If you want us to believe that the organization is really facing major change, really change the look and feel of the office, of the meetings, of the communications …

Third:  If you find yourself railing in reaction to that second point; thinking you shouldn’t have to spend the money, the time, the energy, the effort, to do all that; thinking that it might be cheaper just to find people who will listen and comply and choose to follow your lead… Sorry.  It doesn’t work that way.  I know you think it does, because, heck, look at you!  You’re a living breathing example of overcoming the environmental influences!  That very thinking is your potential demise.  You are special; please don’t expect all the rest of us to be able to do what you do.

Admit the effect.

It is real.

And it is real important.