What is the smallest action you can take to have the biggest impact?
In the last few months this has become my favorite question, because it beautifully encompasses two other questions that govern my life:
- What didn’t I ask that I should have?
- What would this look like if it were easy?
Starting small is about the questions we should ask ourselves every day, but never do. It’s expected that we shoot for the stars, but not that we think of the millions of little steps that must be taken to reach them. By focusing on the slight improvement, the incremental change, we can perfect our practice while still moving forward day by day.
Small actions are easier to take than big ones. I may not be able to run an ultramarathon now, but I can do my five miles today and add on more distance tomorrow.
As a naturally impatient person and a new entrepreneur, I rarely look at time as my friend. Yet, behavioral psychologists, scientists studying performance, and the most accomplished athletes, musicians, and business leaders all understand that the combination of repetition, time, and practice ultimately produces the greatest results.
I’ve seen this in practice running my company Ethos, which focuses on driving tech company performance by supporting the teams powering them. Small, daily actions become employee habits, and if they’re the goods ones, cultures thrive. I haven’t seen this success with major restructurings or team shakeups.
In fact, when the legendary Pixar President Ed Catmull took over Disney Animation during a period of lackluster performance, he didn’t conduct mass firings or rewrite the studio’s playbook to look like Pixar’s.
Instead, he respected the people and culture he inherited while making changes to workflows, communications, and touchpoints between directors and studio executives. As a result, Disney Animation produced Tangled, Frozen, and Zootopia, which collectively grossed billions of dollars and scored significant recognition from the Oscars.
So, as leaders of teams, what are the smallest actions we can take to have the biggest impact?
Embrace the Three C’s
In what I consider to be the best book written on culture inside organizations, The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle writes:
“Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”
Culture is determined by the actions that form and define relationships.
The interconnection between what we do on teams and how we view one another is undeniable. Consequently, as leaders, we must invest in identifying and adopting the actions that spur strong, healthy relationships.
For the best result, these actions should be tied to what I like to call the “Three C’s:” commitment, choice, and consistency.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, professors James Born, Michael Hannan and Diane Burton of the Stanford Project on Emerging Companies (SPEC) sought out to understand which organizational model produced the highest performing teams by studying 167 young startups.
Of the five models they tested, including an engineering model that privileged hires with specialized tech skills and a star model that hired “A-Players,” the commitment model proved to be the most effective. In this organizational model, team members shared values and emotional bonds.
Not only did commitment model companies outperform their peers, they were also the most likely to survive when the dot com bubble burst in the early 2000s.
In other words, a team really is more than the sum of its parts.
Feeling a strong commitment to a shared set of beliefs and to one another is a better indicator of business performance than individual skill sets or track records.
Adopting actions that foster a sense of commitment within an organization is crucial. Examples include:
- Allowing informal peer groups to form and thrive by encouraging team members to help one another on projects, share lunches together in a cafeteria, and spend time together outside of the office through team-building activities and service projects.
- Repeating company values by writing them on the walls, including them in emails, reviewing them regularly together in all-hands and team meetings, and even diving into their definitions in culture-focused town hall meetings.
- Integrating values into performance management by providing regular, daily feedback on how a team member is performing relative to a value like “integrity” in the same way as you might for strategic skills.
- Recognizing teams for how their shared work and embodiment of company values produced positive results in as many places as possible, including Slack channels, email threads, team offsites, and even regular meetings.
- Creating conditions where teams have tremendous responsibility but also respect for others’ contributions. By bringing together individuals from different departments who have complementary, not overlapping skills, leaders make clear that victories take place because everyone is in it together.
- Communicating to managers that they are measured just as much by the output of their teams as by their own work to demonstrate their connection not just to the organizational group dynamics, but the ones their own group dynamics.
Leaders of strong teams approach choice in two ways: by creating priorities everyone collectively strives to achieve, and by letting individual employees choose how they reach those priorities based on their own domains and skills.
Think of this as a means of resolving the central tension in team environments. As Pat Wadors points out in her look at why diversity initiatives are failing in tech, belonging is absolutely central to an employee’s comfort, confidence, and contributions at work.
Human beings are hardwired to seek out the approval of groups and fit in.
Individuals also have an intense need to feel special and distinct from their peers. Often, employees struggle because they want to be both part of the group, and separate from it enough to be seen for their own talents.
By repeating daily actions that signal both belonging and distinction within an office, leaders can resolve this tension. For example:
- In every meeting, restate the 3–5 objectives necessary for the company to thrive and ask the team members in the meeting how they are individually working towards achieving those objectives.
- When making connections or introductions, use the person’s name and core role within the organization but with the pronoun “our,” such as “Rachel is our Analyst here, responsible for running the data systems that power our company.”
- Encourage teams to recognize their individual members with specific, concrete praise that integrates them into the greater whole, like “We built the new platform in record time, and we have to give a shout out to Katya’s bug testing skills for making it possible” and “We’re so proud to reveal our new logo, especially that killer ‘h’ that Leor handcrafted.”
Put simply, make people feel both connected to one another and individually special. They need to understand they have a role on your team, and that you need them. Reinforce this daily by asking their opinions, listening to their suggestions, providing transparency around organizational happenings, and giving them greater responsibilities when they perform well.
When you deliver negative feedback, as Kim Scott insists in Radical Candor, make sure to challenge directly while caring personally.
Explain that you have high expectations for this person, which is why you are sharing this feedback. Make sure to do it one-on-one to create a feeling of safety that allows both of you to be vulnerable. This will facilitate trust that will strengthen your relationships, and consequently, your employees’ performance.
Habits are formed through repeated actions.
In a study on habit formation, University College London researchers found a simple approach to behavior change. The key to its success was consistency.
Those looking to change behavior should decide on a goal to achieve, choose a simple action that could be done on a daily basis, plan when and where, consistently do that action at that time and place, and by 10 weeks, consider the habit formed.
Consistency is a vital tool in both strengthening commitment and making employees feel part of a whole while also feeling uniquely special.
In particular, in the companies I work with, I stress the importance of small, attentive behaviors that reinforce both, like:
- Saying thank you
- Asking lots of questions
- Letting others finish speaking before jumping in
- Holding doors open
- Offering to help carry items
- Bringing back water, snacks, tissues, or other supplies when venturing to the office kitchen or supply room
These actions sound grade-school-simple, but when done consistently, they signal a shared bond that is essential to building stable teams.
In many cases, teams under pressure will forget these small actions, so it’s up to leadership to lead by example and reward those who follow their example with praise.
“Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped in water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects,” — The 14th Dalai Lama
To lead a team that succeeds, you need to understand that small actions have big impacts.
Think back to a time when you didn’t feel committed to an organization. Can you pin down one or two instances that led to this feeling?
I often go back to an internship that ultimately planted the seed that I should not be a lawyer.
I was working very long hours — too long, in fact, considering the university’s policies — and was in the office for a dinner celebration. I joined the buffet line to grab a plate. My boss met in line and said, “You eat last.”
In that moment, I no longer felt part of the team or individually seen. I also didn’t feel I understood the consistent rules of the organization because the other interns remained in line without consequences.
It was such a small signal, but it impacted me profoundly. While it wasn’t the only negative signal that stuck out me during that summer, I never forgot that experience. In fact, when I went on to lead my own teams, I made a point that they would always eat first.
Recently, I was on a panel with a female entrepreneur I’ve often heard called an extraordinary leader. Her team has grown extremely fast, and her product went from zero customers to overtaking market share from virtually every competitor in a span of a few years. But for me, it was a much smaller action that made her stand out.
Before she stepped on stage, she huddled her team together and said, “I put all your orders in and the food is coming soon.” From the way she delivered the news and her team responded, it was clear this was the norm. Even though she was preparing for a public speaking event just moments away, she still took time to order meals for her team members they could all eat together. That’s when I knew she was an extraordinary leader.