Managing Our Microclimates

Michael Reddy

Michael S. Reddy, DMD, DMSc

November marks the transition of our Mediterranean-style seasons, from warm, dry summer to cool, rainy winter. Unless you’re in San Francisco, where July might seem like winter and January in a drought year might seem like summer.

And even this depends on which part of the city you’re in. The microclimates vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, sometimes block to block. The sun may be shining warmly at Mission Bay and hiding behind a fog bank at Parnassus — and can reverse itself between lunch and dinner.

While some consider microclimates part of San Francisco’s quirky charm, they are less charming in academia or the workplace. When team members view campus climate as harsh, oppressive or depressing, it has a negative effect on the productivity, success and advancement of the team. If some members of the team find themselves in a negative microclimate but see positivity elsewhere, that disconnect points to a problem.

None of us can chase the fog away. But we all, in ways great or small, can influence the microclimates where we work. A couple of key qualities of a positive work and learning environment — empathy and inclusion — can help you motivate your direct reports, be a great teammate, and manage your own difficult boss while brightening the climate for everyone.

First, I believe empathy makes leaders stronger. That may seem counterintuitive, but empirical research shows it to be true. Neuroscientists recognize two types of empathy as holding particular relevance for executive effectiveness: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Each has its roots in different circuits in the brain. Cognitive empathy leads one to understand another person's perspective, reflect on his or her situation, and consider the forces that may be at play. Emotional empathy allows one to discern unspoken feelings by reading facial expressions, tone of voice, or other non-verbal clues. Both forms of empathy are useful at all levels of an organization, whether you direct the group or need to figure out what’s influencing the supervisor.

Key questions, and not just for leaders: How well do you know the members of the team, what motivates them, and how they experience their work? What do they see from their positions in our organization? Empathy enables us to to gather information about the people around us. We all manage relationships on the job; those who lack empathy miss information that could be crucial for their own — and their organization’s — success.

Including team members in projects and decisions also moves the needle on institutional climate. People who have a say in the direction and operation of the team can help cultivate a positive climate for all involved. A great example comes from the 2017-18 NBA season, when the coach of the world’s best basketball team put his players in command. Steve Kerr has had the Golden State Warriors basketball team operating like a well-oiled machine, having built a system that succeeded even during his extended health-related absence. During one game last season, Kerr did something no coach (and very few leaders anywhere) would do: He let the players be the boss. During each time-out, the team members drew up the plays they wanted to execute, delegated roles amongst themselves, and encouraged each other. Kerr and the other coaches stood off to the side. Empowering the players to coach the team builds a higher level of engagement and buy-in during the game. (In case you don’t recall the outcome: The Warriors won by 46 points.)

Of course, there’s a fine line between empowerment and losing control. Experts say leaders must know intuitively when it’s time to step back and create space for the team’s members to grow, and when to actively take the reins. Kerr let his players be the boss during a regular mid-season contest, not a pressure-packed playoff game, and he ceded control for just one game. Who knows, he may try it again this year; similarly, we can employ a variation of this strategy to get people involved and owning what they do. This is the essence of inclusion.

San Franciscans say if you don’t like the weather where you’re at, walk a block and it’ll be different. A little bit of effort goes a long way toward effecting positive change. A few well-chosen steps in the workplace can shift the climate from overcast to optimistic.

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