2. Designing an Environment

2. Designing Environment
To begin this section on designing an environment, we need to make a distinction between operational supports and mission supports.

Operational supports include budget, scheduling, accounting, protocols, procedures, compliance with policy, law and regulations,  and the multiple systems that keep the organization or community operating from day to day.

Mission supports are related more specifically to “why we are here and what we intend to do.”  They help build energy and inspiration behind the enterprise, and are therefore essential.  While it may be possible to function successfully for a time with only the operational supports, it is unlikely to be sustainable without mission supports in place.

As a mission support, designing an environment impacts what it feels like to be here, the level of commitment to the mission, and the degree of satisfaction in working towards fulfilling that mission.  In other words, it affects people’s feelings, which are connected with motivation, purpose, orientation, comfort, safety and trust.  While these factors do not appear on the surface to directly impact the bottom line of a business, the fundraising deadlines for a non-profit, or the new initiative of a cooperative, their impact is enormous.

Why?  Because how people feel is an essential fuel for your mission.

This message bears repeating because human capital is not an inexhaustible resource, but a limited one which requires continued investment and cultivation.  If you care about your people, your community, your clients, and your stakeholder partners, you will do all you can to ensure that your community is healthy, harmonious and productive.

By thoughtfully designing an  environment which takes “what if feels like to be here” into account, your organization can be potentially transformed to such a degree that goals and values are shared across the board and your organization’s mission is pursued by all with ever-renewed vigor and enthusiasm.

KindWork-LogoThree visible features

There are many ways to design an environment.  For simplicity, I’ve narrowed it down to three visible features, all of which begin with the word “shaping.”  The concept of shaping was borrowed from the book, “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard” (Heath & Heath, 2010).  In this book, authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath (2010) present a useful taxonomy for creating change in organizations.

One of the ways for change to take place according to these authors is to “shape the path.”  The idea of shaping the path is that if we want to create change in an organization, we need to create the optimal conditions for that change to take place.  It is not enough to present rational arguments or to appeal to the conscience (or wallets) of individuals in the community.  We need to shape certain paths, structures, and behaviors in an organization so that the change we seek might come more naturally to our colleagues, partners and subordinates.

If we were to observe a culture which has these features , we would be observing patterns of activity around designing and building things.  We would be observing a community:

  • thoughtfully shaping its mission and values,
  • responsibly shaping and re-shaping the way its people talk to one another, and
  • carefully shaping the design elements of the workplace environment.

The key word here is  intentionality. When it comes to the “big picture” and long-term sustainability …

Nothing is left to chance.


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KindWork-Logo1.  Shaping the Mission

 All organizations have a purpose.  People form organizations to sell magazines, promote political candidates, practice a religion, produce films, build housing cooperatives, and educate generations of young people.  Whatever the purpose of the organization, it cannot thrive without a clear mission.

A mission can be defined as the overarching purpose that guides the activities of the organization.  In the words of the poet, Dylan Thomas, it is “the green fuse that drives the flower.”  It has become commonplace for formal organizations to have a clear mission and mission statement.  It is a common practice for corporations, school systems, human resource departments, non-profits and other types of communities.

But, we are going to set aside the question of how to create a mission statement, as there are a number of websites and books about the subject.  Some focus on the distinction between “vision” and “mission”, and others focus on the importance of gathering input from stakeholders in crafting the first draft.  Still others zero in on the civic dimensions of mission statements, with an understanding that organizations directly contribute to society by providing a service or product that enhances or perhaps even compromises the lives of citizens.

These are all important considerations, but shaping the mission goes far beyond shaping the written statement that encapsulates that mission.

To put it in the simplest possible way, a mission statement is superficial and anemic if there is no muscle behind it.  Whether the process of developing the mission statement has been a collaborative one involving community partners or a solitary one resulting in the vision of a single leader, the mission statement alone cannot support your mission.  To serve its purpose, the mission must be supported by consistent mission-based behaviors by the leadership and by others in the community.

What are mission-based behaviors?  They are actions that are in direct alignment with the mission itself.   In large bureaucratic institutions, this is difficult to achieve on a wide scale, but on the scale of individual departments and sites, it certainly can be achieved.  This would require three important actions on the part of the leadership of the organization.

  • recruiting the right people
  • promoting an ethical culture, and
  • leading by example.

These three actions are not only important.  They are absolutely crucial.  With the right people, an ethical culture, and exemplary leadership, there is a good chance that you can achieve a continued, unbroken circulation of the mission.  The next two visible features -shaping the language and shaping the space – are further ways in which ethics can be positively reinforced in the community -including leading by example- and your ability to do so will enhance your ability to circulate the mission.  Of course, much depends  on the degree of autonomy your organization has in creating such an atmosphere.  If your organization is part of a larger bureaucracy or is a business with a unionized workforce, there are other elements and perhaps limitations to consider in creating a mission-based culture.

Regardless of these other elements and limitations, the leadership of an organization -be it a single CEO or program director, a committee, or a board of trustees- can and should promote and model explicit values that support the mission.  These values can be acted upon, pointed to, repeated and even talked about on a regular basis at meetings.  But, if they remain implicit and assumed without being made explicit and openly acknowledged, there can be little expectation of mission-alignment among members of the community.

Having shaped the mission and values of the organization, the environment of your organization can be further designed to ensure that the communication reflects those values in the highest way possible.

This will require a careful attention to language.


KindWork-Logo2.  Shaping the Language

 Most organizations publicly profess values that relate to treating human beings with dignity.  These values can be seen reflected in their mission statements, proposals and initiatives, and in the letters and emails they share with the public.  However, living up to those values is no easy task, and research has shown that organizations frequently fail in doing so.

The main reason for this failure is the lack of understanding around the power of language and the reluctance to establish clear conversational norms that can best facilitate productive conversations throughout the organization.

This is where the careful attention to language comes in.

How a community talks is a useful barometer for determining the level of commitment an organization has to its mission and stated values.  Anywhere in the organization, conversations can be observed, from the proverbial water cooler to a staff meeting on issues vital to the organization’s continued existence.  A common problem in organizations is the quality of those conversations.  Without the careful stewardship of your organization’s language norms, the language and politics will seeks their own path, a scenario which can easily lead to unproductive conflicts.  It should be easy to see how these conflicts can undermine the collaboration and trust that is necessary for working towards organizational goals.

I’ve included a section on “language norms” on this website, with an introduction called “A Positive Language Environment.”  These pages suggest specific norms that can have an impact on the language culture of a community and are based on research from the fields of organizational theory and behavior and linguistics.  They are not meant to be prescriptive but rather to serve as a guide.  For example, a distinction is made between inquiring into the positions of a colleague or community member rather than ruthlessly interrogating to find fault.  The small act of pointing out this distinction like can be helpful because it involves the practice of “naming.”  Once an unproductive pattern is named out in the open, it is made transparent and thus neutralized or at least robbed of some of its power.

The following unproductive behaviors need to be named, recognized, prevented and eliminated, if you want to sustain a positive, mission-based culture:

  • gossip, rumor and innuendo
  • intentional discrediting of a colleague to gain the upper hand
  • refusal to acknowledge an opposing view while advancing your own
  • agendas and arguments made without reference to the organization’s mission
  • personal attacks in place of disagreement with the content of an opposing view

Most leaders who are concerned about their organization’s mission and people would naturally discourage those types of behaviors.  If it’s within their authority and legal parameters, they may elect to remove people from the community who have continuously meted out this type of psychological violence, knowing how easily the organization’s mission and bottom line can be undermined.

But, again, it should be emphasized that promoting positive language norms and holding people accountable for violating them is not possible or even desirable in an organization led by narcissistic or ego-driven leaders.  A genuine interest in shaping the language of your organization for optimal relationships assumes that you already care about your organization, its mission, and your people, and that you have other peoples’ best interests at heart.

I can’t stress enough that careful stewardship requires the active promotion of positive and fair communication.  And there are very effective ways in which the physical spaces in your community can be designed to further enhance that stewardship.


KindWork-Logo3.  Shaping the Space

The physical spaces in which we work, learn and relate have more of an impact on relationships and productivity than we may realize.  This is because on both obvious and subtle levels, the physical spaces we inhabit are always communicating something.  Therefore, we need to be intentional in designing these space so we are communicating in accordance with the mission (which is likely to include respect for people).

We can think about shaping the physical space in a number of ways.  We can think about movement, color, noise, lighting, time, tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, and arrangements of objects such as chairs, desks, tables and clocks.  We can also think about, look at, listen to, smell and “feel” the environment created by the structure and layout of whole buildings.  The physical spaces can be designed strategically to enhance the physical comfort levels of community members, reinforce positive language norms and mission goals, and reduce power differentials between managers and subordinates (or between those with more or less informal authority), which can build more trust and mutual accountability.

There is no one correct way to design the physical environment or to temporarily arrange the physical environment for  a specific task, project or meeting.  The key is to design with intentionality and awareness.

Awareness of the following factors can be helpful in approaching the design:

Message factors

We can begin with the question: What messages are we sending about who we are as a community?

The most fundamental messages are the mission statement, rules, and policies, which can be widely posted throughout the buildings.  When an organization has created its mission statement, defined its rules and policies, and has posted them throughout the building, it has accomplished something very important.  It has given the community a point of reference and a sense of identity.

Message postings can be as prosaic as placing a sign next to the coffee-maker asking for donations or as crucial as placing HAZMAT “Safety Rules” in an auto body shop or “anti-Bullying” policies in key areas throughout a public school.  Not everybody will read them, and certainly nobody can be expected to read them all the time, but if they are placed in strategic areas, they can be helpful in orienting the community.

While workplaces are legally mandated to post anti-harassment policies (which currently afford protection to groups of protected status in the areas of sexual orientation, race, age, gender, etc.), it is highly recommended that your organization posts anti-bullying policies for adults.  In recent years, research has shown that more than a third of American workers have experienced harassment, bullying, intimidation, targeting, and malicious gossip.  An additional third of American workers have witnessed this phenomenon.  If such behaviors go on unchecked, your organization can succumb to a “culture of fear” and may experience increased absenteeism, increased health problems, and possibly retributive violence from targets.

A new movement has arisen over the past few decades that seeks to create legal protections for American workers from being targeted by “workplace bullies.”  It is called the “Healthy Workplace Bill” and has been introduced to a number of state legislatures.  This bill, if passed into law, would create a legal claim for targets, regardless of protected status.  In the meantime, in the absence of such a law in your state, it would be very helpful to stay on message with your community that violence in all its forms -including intentional, psychological violence- will not be tolerated.

Finally, if your organization has created your own conversational norms (for an example, click here), it would be helpful to post them in key areas so that everyone is on the same page about what is expected and what should be avoided during individual and group meetings and encounters.

Power factors

We can begin with the question:  Who has the most power in this situation?

There’s no getting around it.  Power dynamics exists in every organization.  This is true even in organizations that are strictly democratic and consensus-based in their decision-making (such as progressive-leaning housing cooperatives).  So, it’s always good to ask ourselves “What are the power dynamics between the us and how can we reduce the anxiety caused by that differential?”  Obviously, this question should be kept in mind by those who have more authority (whether formal or informal).

There are some instances where we can experiment with the space or with the selection of a different space.  For instance, a manager might ask to meet a worker in her own office to discuss her evaluation rather than in the managers’ office to help focus the discussion on the substance of the evaluation, a task that is much easier to accomplish when there is reduced anxiety.

Comfort factors

We can begin with the question: What does it feel like to be in this space?  

Once this inquiry yields the answers, we can work with the lighting, arrangements of chairs and other objects, and other elements of the physical space until it “feels good to be here.”  This would require perhaps a collaborative effort of those who will be participating in the particular space.


Designing the environment is one of the three main supports for bringing empathy, trust, harmony, and productivity into an organization and the successful attainment of its  mission and goals.  This involves the commitment to shaping the mission, shaping the language and shaping the space, and goes a long way in developing a community.

In such an environment, all things are possible.  In such a space, we have opened the way for creativity, innovation, and respect for the valuable resources others bring to the table.  In such a palace of promise, we have created the conditions in which a more cooperative spirit might emerge.

We now proceed to examine what cooperation looks like in a community dedicated to its mission.

3. Promoting genuine cooperation