Leaders must be aware of nearing a workplace tipping point

One cool evening last week, I rested in my chair on the bank of my river and gazed across the water. The bright yellow petals of the seven-foot high Indian Yams were mostly gone and their leaves were turning brown. Behind me another paw paw splatted the ground with a dull thud.

A large fish with a yellow belly escaped the water in pursuit of food and flopped back into the water. For the next few minutes silence flowed down the valley and my attention turned to a large spider above my head repairing its web between two branches. The air was heavy and still while the smells of fall settled into my nostrils.

Suddenly, six loud claps in irregular progression startled me. I jerked my head to the right and saw the last three walnuts plunge into the river. Rippling bands of water spread across the river and identified the contact point of each walnut. A flurry of leaves resembling wafting feathers softly followed the nuts into the water.

I marveled at the fact that for over four months each of these walnuts had grown larger and clung tenaciously to their respective branches. They had managed to hang on through wind storms, pounding rain, and hail. This time, however, in the stillness of a September day, the weight of the walnut superseded the strength of the attaching stem. Just like the many leaves that seem to arbitrarily let go and glide to the ground, a tipping point was reached where weight overcame strength.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a best-selling book called “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Difference” that describes this phenomenon. This concept is relevant to organizational behavior also. I have known many leaders who were aware of a tipping point and called me for assistance in preventing a significant fracture in the organization. Many other leaders are oblivious of the organizational weak area that is stretching to the danger point. Some call me only after the break has occurred.

It is always easier to improve organizational performance before the tipping point is reached and a crash occurs. Without a measuring mechanism, it is hard, if not impossible, for leaders to understand they are approaching a tipping point. Employee opinion surveys are valuable but over time they may lose their effectiveness. Periodically, the best leaders informally talk to employees at all levels to sample the environment and seek information as to whether or not a tipping point is building.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s completely revised, third printing of The Facilitative Leader: Behaviors that Enable Success, visit his Web site, www.raycomlearning.com or call him at 740-629-4536. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.