How Environment Shapes Behavior

Most of us go through life unaware of how our environment shapes us.

Even when we’re aware of our environment, we become victims of it. Three decades ago, when I started spending half my days on airplanes, I regarded being on a plane as the ideal environment for working. No interruptions.

But as the airlines’ in-flight entertainment offerings expanded, my productivity dropped. What had been a pocket of serenity had become an arcade of distraction.

If there is one “disease” that I’m trying to cure here, it is our total misapprehension of our environment. We think we are in sync with our environment. Actually, it’s at war with us.

In short, a new environment changes our behavior. Sometimes altering one factor can turn an ideal environment into a disaster.

The most pernicious environments are the ones that compel us to compromise our sense of right and wrong. In the ultracompetitive environment of the workplace, it can happen to the most solid citizens. Some environments are designed to lure us into acting against our interest.

Other environments are not as manipulative. But they’re still not working for us. Consider the perennial goal of getting a good night’s sleep. So why do we stay up later than is good for us?

I blame it on a fundamental misunderstanding of how our environment shapes us. It leads to a phenomenon that Dutch sleep researchers at Utrecht University call “bedtime procrastination.” We put off going to bed at the intended time because we prefer to remain in our current environment — say, watching a movie — rather than move to the comfort of our bedroom.

Our environment also isn’t static. It alters throughout our day.

The environment that I’m most concerned with, however, is situational. Every time we enter a new situation, we’re surrendering ourselves to a new environment, putting our goals, plans and integrity at risk.

This situational aspect of our environment is what I’ve been working on with my clients.

For example, in 2008 I was hired to coach an executive named Nadeem. Pakistani by birth, Nadeem had emigrated to the United Kingdom as a child, graduated from the London School of Economics and had risen to one of the top positions at a leading consumer goods firm.

Nadeem had all the virtues of a rising star being groomed for CEO. He was smart, personable, hardworking and respected. But some chinks in his nice-guy reputation had appeared. I was asked by the CEO to smooth them out.

We all know people who get on our nerves and induce us to behave badly. Around such people, we’re edgy and constantly apologizing for our uncharacteristic behavior.

It was the same for Nadeem. When I interviewed his colleagues, a recurring theme came up. Nadeem was a great guy, but he lost his cool whenever he was in a public forum with Simon, the chief marketing officer.

I asked Nadeem what his issues were with Simon. “He is a racist,” he said. 

My feedback had said that Simon loved to bait Nadeem in meetings. It wasn’t racial. Simon had a penchant for pomposity and biting remarks. The sarcasm was his way of reminding people of his background. He wasn’t a fun guy to be with, but he was not a bigot.

In Nadeem’s mind it was a racial issue, but he was the only one who interpreted it that way. Nadeem’s colleagues saw him as a vocal proponent of teamwork who wasn’t modeling what he was preaching.

My task was to make Nadeem see that his behavior wasn’t serving him well. The big insight for Nadeem was that his behavior was situational, triggered by Simon. Every time Nadeem found himself in the “Simon environment,” he would go on high alert. It was a new level of mindfulness for him.

Let’s absorb in Nadeem’s hard-won appreciation that our environment is a relentless triggering machine. If we don’t create and control our environment, our environment creates and controls us.

The result turns us into someone we don’t recognize.