The Yogurt Principle in Leadership


By Doug Turner

Mahatma Ghandi has often been (inaccurately) quoted as having said, ”Be the change you want to see in this world.” This is actually a paraphrase of what he actually said but the message is accurate.

This follows very much along the lines of another widely attributed and rearranged quote: “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Of Mirroring and Modelling Success
It is the message—and your model—that matters in life as in the workplace. The idea is to set an example for others to follow so that a larger change can result.

In the leadership context, there is a bit of a twist. Leaders need to acknowledge that they ARE what their team will become and that people ARE emulating them whether they like it or not. Leaders who really grasp this idea and realize it as a good thing, build trust and very effective.

However, this is a very sharp knife and it can cut many ways. To make this really work, leaders must be accountable for everything they do, say and think. This is fundamental principle in Jack Canfield’s best-selling book The Success Principles. Be accountable for everything that happens around you. Own it—don’t play the complain and blame game.

Accordingly, talk about the “corporate culture” has become increasingly prevalent, but to what are we actually referring? The broader umbrella of corporate culture encompasses the collective amalgam of attitudes, feelings, standards, rules, expectations and tolerances that are shared among all the members of an organization. But, where do these come from? Strong leaders recognize that all of the above begins and end with their vision, voice and actions.

The critical question then becomes “How can one person influence the culture of a large organization?” This is where the yogurt comes in.

A Spoonful of Wisdom: Growing Culture
Yogurt is very simple to make, but you actually need to have some yogurt to start. This is the key. You make yogurt by placing a spoon of yogurt in a bowl of warm milk and leaving it in a reasonably warm, comfortable place overnight—an oven with the light on works. In the morning you have a whole bowl of yogurt.

This transformation happens because the bacteria in the spoon of yogurt react very quickly with certain ingredients in the milk causing them to congeal in just the right way. The milk turns into exactly the same yogurt as the original spoonful. Magic!

Now think of this in the leadership context. It’s a simple analogy to compare the bacteria spreading in the yogurt to people emulating people in an organization. People are people, and they tend to adopt the behaviours of those around them because they want to belong, be accepted and feel more secure.

Now we see the real power in Ghandi’s idea—behave as if you were yogurt and you want to make more just like you. Even better, as mentioned above, recognize that you ARE just like yogurt and people WILL become just like you.

Viral Trust Grows Healthy Profits
As discussed in my previous PeopleTalk articles, the most effective thing a leader can do is to increase the level of trust in an organization. Stephen Covey, in his book The Speed of Trust, talks about the behaviours that create, and destroy, trust. The key is for leaders to show they are trusting and trustworthy. Why? Because people are like yogurt, and they will behave in such a way that the whole level of trust goes up. When this happens, things just go more smoothly. People don’t feel the need to check and verify everything, so accomplishments are faster and easier to achieve.

It has been clearly shown by very successful corporations like Frito-Lay (Pepsi) and HP that the cost savings and efficiencies resulting from higher trust translate directly into improvements to the bottom line. Perhaps even more important, people who work in high trust organizations tend to stay longer, are healthier, and contribute their time more generously to help their colleagues at all levels.

Ditch Blame for the Yogurt Game
So what should we do to help organizations begin to shift in this direction. Let’s revisit Canfield’s fundament—be 100 per cent accountable for everything you do. This means that you don’t play the blame game, you don’t point fingers, you don’t “throw people under the bus.” When things don’t go well, the first person you look at is yourself and you ask what you might have done differently or how you might have helped somebody else a bit more effectively.

The key here is that when people see that you don’t look for blame, they feel more comfortable trusting you, and in turn, they will trust others more. They will be willing to take more chances, make more mistakes, learn from them and encourage others to do the same. The attitude of trust and comfort just grows and grows. If, for example, “more creativity” is the goal, then you will achieve it much faster when the culture is more trusting.

Did I just just mention “culture” again? Was I referring to yogurt or leadership? Regardless of what level you work at in your organization, what position you play on your team, or how senior you are in your family, if you ever want to change things in a particular way, remember, you ARE the yogurt.

Doug Turner, MSc, MBA is a leadership and executive coach at True Balance Coaching.

(PeopleTalk Winter 2017)

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