Dr Maike Neuhaus
How to harness your environmental resources
Have you ever heard of the nature versus nurture debate? This is an ongoing point of curiosity regarding the magnitude of influence the environment has on our behaviour versus our genetics:
Do we mostly learn our behaviour through our life circumstances, experiences and the people around us or is it innate and determined by our genes, biology, hormones and neurochemistry?
When it comes to our behaviour, scientists tend to agree these days that the answer isn’t found in any extreme nature versus nurture end of the scale.
Instead, it is widely accepted that both nature and nurture interact and together influence the way we act. For example, we may have a genetic predisposition to develop a mental illness, but whether these genes will ever be expressed, i.e. whether we will actually develop the mental illness, depends on the presence or absence of triggers in the environment we live in. The environment we live in consists of several layers.
At the heart lie the intrapersonal influences on our behaviour, which are any influencing factors on our behaviour that lie within us, such as our genes. The next level comprises our interpersonal influences, such as our family and friends. You can easily see how these two levels shape how we think and what we do.
But so do the people and places we interact with on a slightly more distant level: schools and childcare during childhood and universities and workplaces during adult years (organisational level); the communities we live in and community clubs we are members of (community level); and the governmental, socio-political influences we experience through legislations. Throughout all this is the physical, built environment acting on our behavioural choice.
When considering the orchestra of multi-level influences on us, it is easy to feel nauseous, helpless and demotivated to take things into your own hands. However, I am hoping to evoke the exact opposite: By understanding the socio-ecological system you live in and how it impacts your behavioural choices, you can learn to avoid those influences that nudge you in the wrong direction and amplify those that support you in your ambition to build new behaviour and reach your goal.
So, let’s look at each of the layers to get a better understand of what they entail, how they impact you and how you might be able to tweak them for your own advantage. A skill that is a perfect example for an intrapersonal behavioural influence.
Intrapersonal: Recognising control & taking action
Intrapersonal influences represent the ‘nature’ influences in the nature versus nurture debate. They include factors such as genes, but also our knowledge, skills, attitude, family history, biology, education, income, self-knowledge, self-awareness, upbringing, ambitions, decision-making, habits, expectation, self-management and – you guessed it - self-leadership.
In fact, self-leadership predominantly focuses on your intrapersonal factors – the skills you can learn and practice within yourself in order to achieve your goal.
Getting to know yourself, your values and how you want to show up in life;
Understanding how you define a happy life and what it is that you’re hoping to get out of it;
Understanding the ins and outs of maintaining a healthy body and mind, so that you can harness the full potential of your motivation, willpower, habits and mindsets; and,
Learning how to master goal-setting in order to maximise your likelihood of achieving your goals.
But one of these skills is also to look outside yourself and understand the impacts your surroundings have on the goals you set and choices you make on your journey towards them. Part of the path to self-leadership is to learn what things we can and can’t control. And then, to become creative in harnessing those things that we can control.
That is taking responsibility: taking things into your hand and taking that path to your goal that you can influence.
Closely related to the topic of locus of control is the notion of expectations. Have you ever heard the phrase “Expectations are premeditated resentments”? Often, we expect things to work a certain way and then become upset when it doesn’t turn out that way. Once we know what we can and can’t control, we can decide whether or not we want to take action and thus gain full responsibility over our actions.
Once we understand this interplay between control and action, we stop banging our head against the wall, trying to change the things we clearly can’t control and instead embrace the importance of acceptance.
We can see more clearly when we are the only ones standing between ourselves and our goal, such as when we remain inactive despite having the power to evoke change. And, we can decide to tap fully into the power of self-leadership by applying all the skills we have to shape the path to our goals in front of us. If this reminds you of the serenity prayer by Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, this makes two of us: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
This is also related to the idea of coping planning: Whether things will get in your way or not is usually outside your control. However, to expect that you will have a smooth ride is setting yourself up for failure or at least frustration.
So, what you can control is how much forethought you put into potential obstacles ahead and how well you’re prepared when they do pop up. Most of us can gain a lot of power by tapping into the third (bottom left) and fourth (bottom right) quadrants: by being honest to ourselves and identifying moments of fear, procrastination, overwhelm and excuse (cognitive dissonance), and learning the strategies of self-leadership to help us overcome them.
Interpersonal: Social influence & support
We are all born into a family and network of people that surround us. They include our family, friends, partners and spouses, teachers, colleagues, bosses, neighbours and any other relationships we have. Together, they comprise our social network of inter-personal influence.
This influence happens intentionally, such as through the way we’re raised by our parents and teachers, as well as unintentionally, such as through role modelling and judgement of our actions. According to motivational speaker Jim Rohn, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” The only thing that is wrong about that statement is that studies have shown that this influence goes way beyond your closest five people.
Research suggests that whether it’s income level, lifestyle factors such as smoking, health determinants, such as obesity or attitudes, a look at your social network is a look into your status – if not at present than that in the near future. While we don’t fully understand the mechanisms behind these findings yet, social norms probably play a key role. For example, the more people smoke, the more it becomes a normalised behaviour and the more people smoke – it’s cyclic. The less we consciously reflect about these influences, the more likely we are to be influenced by them. So what does this mean for you in relation to your goal attainment? There are three implications for your self-leadership journey.
1) The first one is to become aware of the continuous and multi-dimensional way we are exposed to social influence – whether we like it or not – and become more selective. However, instead of taking everything in helplessly, pay more attention to the aspects of your peers that you welcome as opposed to those that you’d rather leave in their own court.
Obviously, the best way to shield yourself from unwelcome beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and habits is to cut exposure altogether. While that might be the best option in some instances, such as in toxic relationships, this will only apply to a minority of social ties. Your best bet to shield yourself from elements you dislike is to remain mindful when they occur and reflecting on your own position instead. Depending on the situation and person involved, you might want to overtly (agree to) disagree on a particular topic and stay clear of touching on that topic with them in the future. Instead, you might want to turn to those people in your network who can support you in your ambition – which brings me to my next point.
2) The second implication of inter-personal influences on your self-leadership journey is that you can harness them for your own good by seeking a partner in crime. Do you have someone in your network who might be aiming for the same goal as you? Maybe you can work towards it together. Or maybe you can share your learning experiences, tips and tricks along the way and cheer each other up when one is running low on energy. If you don’t have the luxury of finding a partner in crime in your network, you can still fall back onto the third option.
3) The third option of harnessing interpersonal influences on your endeavours is to recruit them as your accountability partners as mentioned earlier. They may not be in a position to walk the journey with you, but they might be willing to cheer you on from the sideline. So, think about who in your network might be able and willing to be your cheerleader, tell them about your plans, send them regular updates and ask them to call you out when you’re not progressing as planned.
Organisational-level influences include those we experience during our school years and at the places we work. Apart from the social relationships and interactions, institutional rules, norms, values, policies and regulations, opportunities and expectations shape the way we think and act.
One of my PhD studies focused on reducing individual sitting behaviour in workplaces. This study showed that changing individual behaviour was a lot more successful when targeting the way the whole workplace than individuals alone. When the whole workplace was on-board the sit-less ambition
Managers visibly supported their staff to sit less and stand and move more at work;
It was clearly accepted to stand in meetings; and,
Standing at stand-up desks was encouraged as a healthy lifestyle behaviour that ultimately increased productivity, rather than frowned upon as a sign of unproductivity.
So how can you harness organisational influences for your own good?
The answer depends on what it is that you are chasing and for whom you work. Depending on the type of goal you’re chasing, you can explore opportunities for proactive organisational support. This could be in the form of
Study support, such as time and/ or financial contributions
Flexible work arrangements, such as reduced hours and extended leave and sabbaticals
Reduced membership fees for community clubs.
The opportunities are as vast as your creativity.
Organisations often offer training regarding conflict management, leadership, career progression, coaching, healthy living, stress management, financial planning and a range of more course programs. You can often find social support through conversations with colleagues who may have similar interests and ambitions. Additionally, the work commitments that we often perceive as inflexible obstacles to attaining our goals, are worth exploring by asking questions.
My experience is that the more you can refine your idea of how your employer might be able to support you, how that may benefit your employer in return and how it all fits into existing organisational ambitions, values, policies and norms, the higher your chance of receiving support.
Community & public policy
As we are moving from proximal to more distal-level influences, you can probably already guess how you can harness your community for support. We are born into a community, with certain norms, standards and expectations. Cultural values and norms shape the way we think and act – anyone who has travelled or, even better, lived in a different country will have been confronted with and challenged in their own cultural disposition.
An example is the value of individualism versus collectivism in western and eastern countries respectively. But community influences are also expressed by factors that are more obvious and direct, such as the available resources and community events and clubs. So, you can think of your community as an extension of an organisation.
Reflect on the role your community norms and policies may play in your goal ambitions and explore opportunities to find support in the form of training and resources, community clubs and memberships, social groups and support groups. Admittedly, the further removed we are from the layers of influences in our eco-systems, the harder it can be to understand and harness support systems or effect new ones altogether.
Voting and campaigning of your local, state and federal political parties to bring about legislative changes and allocate funds towards resources that can support your goal ambitions may not result in quick turn around, but are certainly no less important for your self-leadership journey.
Your physical built environment
There is one vital element of influence that spans across each of the socio-economic levels and deserves a mention before we close this chapter: the physical built environment.
The built environment is present around us at all time and slight modifications to it have shown to induce great changes in our behaviour. If you’ve ever removed junk food from your pantry as a strategy to manipulate yourself into a healthier diet or heard of nudge theory before, you know what I’m talking about. Popularised by Professors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, nudge theory explores behavioural economics and with that explains the influence of the environment on human decision-making and learning.
Two canteens who offer the same type of food but arrange it differently, the one displaying healthy foods more visibly will sell more healthy foods than the other. And, if they serve the same amount of food but use different size plates, people who will eat from the smaller plates will likely feel fuller than those who were served the same amount on a bigger plate.
Small tweaks in our environment can be incredibly powerful behaviour changers, because they nudge us into one direction or another – often without any conscious awareness on our behalf.
So, take a moment to reflect on when and how you are being nudged, especially in situations that affect your goal ambition. Then identify ways that you can nudge yourself in the right direction using environmental cues.
If your aim is to reduce your waste, you can downsize your bin (I know it sounds silly but has been proven to work!) and shop at plastic-free markets. If you’re aiming to eat better, scrap junk food from your home, avoid supermarket aisles that don’t fit your criterion of ‘healthy’ and avoid walking or driving through areas with a high density of fast food temptations. Or, if you want to run more often in the mornings, leave your running gear right by your bedside.
So take a moment to reflect on how much responsibility and control you are taking over your life choices; and then consider how you can harness the resources hidden in the many layers of your socio-economic environment to support you achieve your goal.