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Early Warnings

Watching for canaries in the coal mine.

Andrew Grapsas, Blogger

August 12, 2011

4 Min Read

In Buddhism, there's a concept of the spark before the flame. That is, humans (with training) can sense the emerging seed of emotion before it is uncontrollable and acted upon. This is ideally applied to emotions as a means of separating the rise of an emotion and its expression. In this way, practitioners only allow constructive emotions to be expressed.

This is made possible through mindfulness and introspection.  Mindfulness has been a crucial aspect of Eastern thought for over 2000 years and, ever since the 1970’s, has seen significant growth and utilization throughout psychoanalysis in Western therapy.

Please excuse my giddiness as I warp this concept and apply it to our organizations:

While on the PATH into NYC this morning, I followed my usual routine of focusing my mind on a topic of interest and picking it apart. What came to the fore was the thought of the canary in the coal mine. For those that don’t know, coal miners used to carry canaries with them when they ventured below ground. Canaries are hypersensitive to certain deadly chemicals that build up in coal mines and will die well before levels capable of harming humans are reached.

Do we have canaries in our organizations? Certainly!

These individuals provide an early warning that a project or the system of the organization are taking a dangerous turn for the worse. Symptoms, however, are harder to perceive, especially when we’re not actively looking for them.

As a note before I start shouting my opinion on what we can use as an early warning indicator: an employee that appears testy and difficult to work with is probably that way because of her experiences with your company! We cannot blame the person. Instead, we must look for the systemic causes within our organizations that facilitate destructive emotions and their expression within our businesses.

Remember, this is introspection. The people are our company’s thoughts and feelings. We do not ignore the destructive ones; instead, we ask why. We go to the root cause. Look for non-people sources: pay, healthcare, iniquity, overwork, under engagement, lack of training, unrealistic deadlines, cumbersome time off system, lagging evaluations, ever changing roles, etc.

Early warning signs may include (but not be limited to):

  • Body language -- open hands, eye contact, smiling, head nodding, relaxed brow all indicate general positivity while folded arms, leaning back, knit brow, hand over mouth, etc. are indicative of interior thought and rejection

  • Word choice -- listen to what your employee is saying and how she is saying it! The words are there, pay attention to intonation. Your employee may come off as a jerk or incessant; but, ask yourself, is there an underlying systemic reason? In many ways, argumentative employees with rolling eyes are the easiest sign that something is off.

  • Frequency of conversation -- has your employee stopped eating her share of the conversation pie? Is she taking less time to explain her ideas, getting less excited, and generally engaging less? These are dangerous indicators. A healthy relationship sees all participants sharing equally in the conversation.

  • Facial expressions -- some individuals have a talent for recognizing small facial expressions with heavy meanings. Disgust and hate are easy to call out. Others may be more difficult. Pay attention to your employees facial expressions, especially the eyes and areas around the mouth, next time you talk to her. What is her face saying that her mouth is not?

As always, the easiest way to discover the truth is to honestly ask questions. Starting this process is difficult, especially when a culture of trust is tentative or non-existent; but, it must be done for the betterment of the company and its employees. This is why Lean has such a huge emphasis on respecting one another.

What are your experiences with or as canaries? Have you ever vented to a manager early on, anticipated dangers that were down the road? How did your company react? What other elements are early warning signs?

Feel free to post here or converse with me over twitter! I'd love to hear more opinions.

About the Author 

Andrew Andreas Grapsas is a game programmer at Arkadium, Inc. developing casual and social games. He previously worked at THQ and EA as a systems and gameplay programmer on triple-A shooters.

Andrew is actively writing and programming for various projects. You can read more articles exclusively at his blog aagrapsas.com.

Follow Andrew on twitter!

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