Are we products or producers of our environment?

External Internal Environment

Written by Stephen Manley -

This article first appeared in the Training Journal.

You won't find many an opposing view to the notion that our environment impacts what we do and therefore what we achieve. "We're all products of our environment" as the adage goes.

In a group coaching session recently, the subject of the workplace environment became the focus of our discussion. In truth, it was even blamed or cited as the reason why some of the group weren't prepared to change how they themselves lead. In exploring further what we found was that (i) the behaviours of others in their environment had become the stuff of urban legend, organisational folklore, if you will, and therefore - this was now the reason given why it was difficult for some members of the group to do anything different now or in the future, and (ii) the physical aspects of the environment - the décor, the visual appeal (or uninspiring lack thereof) were also factors contributing towards the lack of change on their part.

What we noticed was that both of these factors - which by definition occurred in the past (i.e. leadership behaviours, the way the building or office was decorated etc) we're now being given the power to dictate how the future unravelled.

Dealing with change

When we're dealing with change - if all we do is gather evidence from our past to predict the future then we are shackled somewhat. Since change is something that happens in the moment in order to achieve a different outcome, then the factors in this moment have no chance of being identical to those in the past. Time has moved on. This is true if any of us have achieved something in the past - that's no guarantee for achieving again in the future. Sure we'll bring with us helpful beliefs through our experience - and we use these to overcome the uncertainties of this new situation in what is now a different moment in time.

In the same way that we can bring helpful beliefs experience from our past to face uncertainty in the future - maybe we can bring other things too that cause us to not achieve in the future - unhelpful beliefs.

The belief mechanism

Beliefs are a feed-forward mechanism informed from our past experiences and values. They either empower and help us, or they limit us. For example, I might hold a belief that putting my hand in a fire will cause considerable pain. I choose to believe that is a helpful belief and therefore I'll maintain it until I learn otherwise. Alternatively, if I hold a belief like a fully installed rule that because someone in the past discouraged me from doing something - then I should never try anything new again, then there's a chance this could be a limiting belief.

External and internal environment

Back to our group coaching session…

I encouraged the group to consider the workplace environment in understanding why we do what we do - however, the encouragement was to consider it in 2 areas:

  1. External Environment (i.e. the things we notice around us): the external physical attributes & other people's behaviours
  2. Internal Environment (i.e how we think about the things we notice and the state that results from this): our values, beliefs, thoughts and emotions which precede our behaviours

It is in the internal environment where we actually create our experience of what happens externally. It is this that then causes us to do what we do and justify why we do it.

In our group session, our focus was now changed and we started to consider what we believed to be true as a result of (a)….previous leadership behaviours?, and (b) the uninspiring décor in the workplace?

In the silence of the moment came some sobering insights.

Our reflection was that when we blame our environment - we tend to miss out the internal aspects and focus on the external. Of course the internal world resides in our heads - however we bring this influential element with us whatever environment we are in.

So perhaps we aren't simply products of our environment - we are in fact part of our environment.

Maybe, just maybe we're producers of our environment too.


About the author - Stephen Manley is the coaching director at Spitfire Consultancy who are registered with the Association for Coaching



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