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Curate Your Niche
How to make your environment work for you
Sport has long been fascinated with the importance of culture. More recently, as "psychological safety" has entered the lexicon of the performance world, attention has also turned to the environment or the broader set of conditions in which the culture exists. And the data suggests that the environment has an outsized impact on individual performance and behavior.
But we're missing a key ingredient in our understanding of culture and environment - the role the individual plays in shaping their experience of and operating within that environment.
The environment isn't a thing we walk into when we enter the building.
It's an experience we create bidirectionally.
From the time they're born, human babies have a remarkable capacity to shape their environment. If you're a parent, you know first-hand the impact your child's crying had or still has on you and how you respond. Each time your baby cries, they learn something about the environment: how responsive you are, how gentle and warm, and how you change through the course of the day.
And though they may not seem that sophisticated, the more they learn, the more they understand how to use their behavior to get what they want.
This behavior is called niche construction, and has been called the "neglected process in evolution."
Neglected is an understatement. As our culture has turned it's attention to creating healthy environments (an overall positive take), we've overlooked the role that we as individuals can play in actively shaping and curating that environment to work for us. Some examples include the creation of shade or the building of nests. Plants, animals, and people all modify their environment to promote their success.
To be clear, environmental forces can be very strong, and if we're not in a position of power it can be challenging to figure out exactly what we can do to make it work for us. But, we all have more influence over our environment than we think.
Step 1: Clarify the values, standards, and norms.
The environment is more than just the words posted on the wall. Though the organization might tell you what it thinks should be important, the first step in curating your niche is getting clear on what the organization actually values.
The simplest way to do that? Look at what gets rewarded.
If the boss says honesty is a value but keeps promoting people who manipulate their numbers, you can safely assume that the value of honesty is either unimportant or just less important than performance.
As you clarify the values, start to look for the standards and norms these values have created. How do people typically behave? What's typically expected? How are people treated when expectations are met or unmet?
This is about building a clear mental model of the environment you're in so that you can turn your attention to shaping the environment in a way that works for you.
Step 2: Identify what works and doesn't work for you.
Now that you've got a model of the environment you're in, start to get specific about what's working for you (facilitating health & high performance) and what isn't (undermines your performance).
The easiest place to start in curating your own niche is by addressing what's holding you back.
Step 3: Select a target
Don't boil the ocean. Now that you've identified what you want to change, the temptation is going to be to try and fix everything at once. Humans have a remarkable propensity for wanting things to be better now, but it can be hard to make more than 1-2 changes at a time.
Start by focusing on either:
The easiest element of the environment to change
The highest impact element of the environment to change
These will be dependent on you and your role, but in general, easy things to change might be changing your office location or walking a different route through the building so you avoid the people who drag you into endless conversations. Some high-impact things might be asking to switch direct reports or rewriting your job description to better fit your own strengths.
Step 4: Little by little, a little becomes a lot.
Now that you've got your target, start with a small step. These little successes compound over time. Try to identify 1-2 small things you can change quickly, and take note of how the environment responds to these changes.
Some examples of these small steps include:
Responding a bit more slowly to your email to slow down the frenetic pace of the people around you
Introducing small talk at the beginning of meetings to build greater connections
Moving the TV remote to another room to reduce your TV time
As you start to experience success with these small steps, you can leverage the winner effect to increase your confidence making progressively larger changes.
Step 5: Cross the chasm (as applicable).
Chances are that while these small changes accumulate, the environment around you will start to be more effective for you. But, there may still be one big change that needs to happen - you might greater support from management, want a new role, or seek a new boss.
Once you've demonstrated your success and have a sense of what's improved, that becomes your leverage for promoting the big change.
You can point to measurable improvement and changes in response to the way you've curated your niche, and can use that data to suggest a larger, more impactful change.
Though it can be hard to get started, curating your own niche is the first step to promoting your health and high performance. You can make your environment work for you.