Change is hard. Harder still when it isn’t clear what to change, or what exactly needs to change. When negative situations arise, like getting a cavity, it’s easy to prioritize fixing that situation. It’s much harder to understand the underlying causes, the environment, that caused the cavity. The environment is rarely urgent and often times can hide in the background of our busy lives.

In the United States, brushing our teeth didn’t become common until after World War 2. Europe was civilized hundreds of years before the US. Muslims go back the furthest and were true pioneers in dental care. What took the US so long? There was no environment that expected we brush our teeth. Eww. During World War 2, the military invested in marketing and expecting dental hygiene. This expectation continued, and spread, when the soldiers returned, changing the environment back home. The result was obvious and expected; we had a decrease in gum disease, tooth decay, and cavities. Those oral ailments are problems. They must be dealt with. The dentist visit is the situation that arises from the environment of treating our mouth pits like unmaintained garbage disposals. I’m glad the US caught up, and there is a larger lesson about changing the environment to remove problematic situations before they have a chance to exist.

It’s common to hear “Don’t treat the symptom, treat the disease”. While that’s a good expression, it doesn’t provide enough clarity to be helpful. It takes practice to be able to identify and distinguish between situation and environment. We must first examine the environment before we can have any hope of changing anything. Brace yourself for the difficulties that arise when changing environments instead of treating symptoms, which are unfortunately disproportionate based on power and privilege (more on that later). While short fixes are available, over a long enough timeline, the energy and difficulties in treating symptoms will always be greater than treating the disease. Play the long game and avoid the repeating cycle of treating symptom after symptom. The longer the environment is toxic, the more energy it requires to change.

After the environment is clearly identified, the next step is small changes. Environments always change, but maybe not deliberately or with the awareness of those living within. People tend to resist outright change, even if the environment isn’t ideal for them. People are adaptable and change frequently naturally, though. Changing an environment by telling someone to be a kinder, gentler person is as effective as telling a cavity to stop eating away at teeth. Indirect action, such as gently rewarding positive behavior, is an effective method to slowly change the environment. People are great at picking up on what gets rewarded and naturally do more in that way.

The opposite of manipulation is education…

– Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

That may sound manipulative. Manipulation won’t work here. Manipulation isn’t sincere. One of my favorite quotes from Erich Fromm is “The opposite of manipulation is education.” Educate those around you about what will be rewarded and be explicit with those rewards. The best reward and positive reinforcement is gratitude, which is quite different than praise. Expressing gratitude is a positive reward that can be phrased as, “I really appreciate the way you expressed your disagreement there, it was so good to have that conversation!” This is not manipulative at all, but a clear reward that moves towards a cultivated environment.

If this feels uncertain that’s a good sign. What is a good environment is entirely subjective, and there are 3 main groups of people. The first are those who want to change the environment and work towards that end. The second are people who do not want the environment to change and spend their energy inhibiting progress. Finally, there are those who want to change the environment but will not work for it. This can create some adversaries, but that doesn’t mean it must create conflict. Simplified, this asks the question of who gets to define and guide the changes?

This is the role of leadership. Leadership is not a prerequisite to cultivating the right environment. Those who change the environment become leaders. This is the distinction between an authority and someone with a mission. It is easy to confuse authority with leadership, especially in the context of cultivating environments.

For some examples, I take an active role of leadership in my family, setting expectations and cultivating the environment of trusting, open conversation. I ensure my kids witness meaningful conversations with my wife (whether they pay attention is separate) and those conversations are available to them, too. Contrast to my work, there is no bestowed authority granted there (I'm not a founder, in the "leadership" team meaning those with bestowed authority). There is, however, a unique amount transparency here, which makes it easier to be a leader without any granted authority. Any employee can read emails and almost any information is freely available.

Knowledge is the best tool of an effective leader, because leading stems from education and decisions. Good decisions are made on a foundation of good knowledge. Good decisions inspire action, and leadership requires action. I work in a company that gives me all the information I need but it’s up to me to convert it to knowledge. To be effective, I must convert as much information into knowledge. Fortunately in my work, information is abundant.

The authoritative leaders of the company have created an environment where curiosity is rewarded, and people take that up to have conversations around things they’re not clear about. A healthy environment promotes great behavior not with tools or process but with simple, powerful, social expectations that are easily understood. Again, this is rooted in action that is built upon the primary tools of leadership: knowledge and education.

With the focus on the environment, it’s easy to neglect the situation. A cavity left untreated requires significantly more treatment. Instead it is about prioritization and effort, and finding the right people to do the right things. A dentist fixes the cavity, but as history has proved, they can’t get us to floss. The environment is never urgent, but situations are, but they are significantly more important than any singular situation. Take care when addressing situations, and find the right people (or commit to act if you are the right person) to spend the requisite energy in cultivating the positive environment we all deserve.

Changing environments and cultivating greatness takes time, patience, and thought. It also requires awareness of power and privilege, for better or worse, and building alliances. Change requires many conversations. It requires strategic recognition of good behavior and passive neglect of bad behavior. But all of that is worth it, because in the end a beautiful garden may emerge.

Special thanks to Julia Evans for reading and talking through this with me!