Back in the not so olden times, 1911 in fact, John Scott Haldane introduced the concept of having a canary as an early detection system for hazardous gases in coal mines. Miners used caged canaries to determine if there were any hazardous gasses (methane, carbon monoxide) present in the environment they were working in. Canaries quickly became a metaphor for warning signs – when the canary keels over, it’s time to evacuate the mine before you become the next victim.
This metaphor can also be applied to business, I like to call them 'Culture Canaries', and as leaders, we need to be noticing the early warning signs.
The coalmine is your environment, physical and emotional. The canaries are your people, and the invisible gas is your culture.
The singing canary means you've got a happy workplace, happy staff. When the canary stops singing - it's a sign. It has detected that something isn't right here, there's something in the air that smells bad and it's an early warning sign that trouble is afoot. Something is going on that is impacting your environment. Ignore at your peril. If ignored, you end up with dead canaries or fleeing canaries. Dead canaries signal a dysfunctional workplace where people are dead on the inside - they've given up trying to fix something, and they just accept the shitty status quo that is a bad culture. Fleeing canaries signal people who perhaps tried to influence change, spoke up, and nothing has changed, so they gapped it, or they just went 'screw this' and they chose to leave, before they end up with the life sucked out of them, dead in a cage, in an environment that seemingly looks like it's fine from the outside, but inside, it's toxic and there are dead birds everywhere.
People are your quickest gauge of early warning signs that something's in the air that's not ok. Maybe it shows up as negative feedback or a decline in staff morale in the annual culture survey? Maybe it's an increase in bullying complaints, or that HR are run off their feet helping leaders deal with staffing issues? Perhaps it's less people coming to staff social events, or the end of year dinner? Maybe it's an increase in turnover or people are leaving faster than usual? Whatever it is, it will be visible in some form or other.
I once had a CEO say to me "The people we hired that we thought would be great for the organisation and turning this place around, all end up leaving. They stick around for about 18 months, and then they leave". This is a sign. There are many more, and they are clear warning signals that something is not right in the air or that the environment you are operating in has a bit of bad gas.
Toxic gas often isn't obvious, but when you open your ears, eyes and mind, you'll be able to detect it.
There are 3 things you can do to identify early warning signs:
1. Listening. By listening to what your staff are telling you, with empathy, and without bias and judgement, you can more deeply understand what is going on from their point of view. Equally, having an ear for picking up what they are not saying is telling you something too.
2. Looking. By observing staff interactions (from the staffrooms to meeting rooms) you can pick up on and identify body language cues. The physical response people communicate through body language is useful to notice. The other areas to look is at your organisations people stats, data, and results - if negative or declining, it's are a tell tale sign that something's not working.
3. Learning. By asking your people questions from a place of curiosity, you will get to the heart of the matter faster. People like to feel heard, and again, when you can ask good questions from a place of empathy, and without bias or judgement, you will open your mind to learning what else might be going on.
Once you have identified a warning sign, it's important to act on it quickly.
People know when a workplace is a bit shit, and they will be communicating this to you in some shape or form; verbally or visually, we just need to be open to seeing, hearing and acting. There is a certain level of shit that canaries will put up with before taking more drastic action, and it is your role as a leader to notice the early warning signs that are pointing to something being wrong, and act on it immediately.
In the coal mines, when the bird stopped singing - the miners evacuated immediately. They stopped, got out of the environment, and then addressed the risk. As a leader, when we notice something is not right, we need to stop and deal with what's going on immediately. When we don't, we end up with dead or fleeing canaries.
What are your early warning signs? What information might you be subconsciously ignoring right now in your workplace? Who are your dead canaries, and who's still singing ? and what's the difference for these people? What questions can you ask that will give you new insights?
How are we, as leaders, ensuring that our 'canaries' are happy and singing, and not quitting and leaving, or worse, are dead on the inside?