Why Being Heliotropic is Important to Your Culture
Have you ever stood in line at a coffee shop, and the person in front of you paid for your drink? Did it make you want to do the same for somebody else?
There’s a tiny cafe close to where my family vacations in Northern Michigan every year, and behind the counter hangs a whiteboard. It’s reserved for the daily specials, along with a tally of “Pay It Forward Coffees”. I only visit that cafe once a year, but one of the strongest visuals for me is that whiteboard. And after speaking with Dr. Harry D. Cohen, founder of Be The Sun, Not The Salt, I can’t help but think he would appreciate the celebration of these small but significant good deeds, and the ripple effect they can have.
Harry started his career as a family therapist, with a focus on positive psychology. Throughout his years of research, working with clients, and shifting over to corporate leadership and stress management, he amassed a wealth of knowledge on human behavior. And when he was invited to give a TEDx talk at Elon University, he focused on the science-based concept of the heliotropic effect, which conveys that all living organisms move towards energy that sustains life. This can be seen simply by plants shifting towards the sun, but also applies to humans, and more specifically, businesses, which has been further researched by the Ross School of Business within the University of Michigan.
“A focus on the positive is life- giving for individuals and organizations in the same way that positive energy in nature enhances thriving in living organisms,” writes Kim Cameron in one of his academic papers on the subject, Five Keys to Flourishing in Trying Times.
Harry wanted to distill the essence of this scientific theory in how it relates to human nature.
“When I ended the TED talk, I said ‘Be the sun, not the salt. Leave people with an afterglow, not an after taste. As a way of summarizing the whole point. Took me a couple of years to distill that work into 30 simple chapters to remind us, be uplifting, and remember not to salt people’s roots.”
Like the sun, people who act in heliotropic ways can create a dramatic impact on their environment.Dr. Harry D. Cohen, Be The Sun, Not The Salt
Harry’s book Be The Sun, Not The Salt encourages everyone in simple, memorable actions, how to shift towards being a positive energizer. This means doing more of what we do when we’re at our best, and recognizing when our behavior is damaging, and to correct ourselves. This can apply to anyone of any age, but he says that it can effectively be applied to teams or organizations striving for an authentically positive culture. One of the most important aspects of this is consistently expressing genuine care, which many Small Giants companies, like imageOne, already do and continue to improve upon.
“Science based,” Harry says, “if you behave in these ways, everybody wins immediately and long term [in regards to] health, engagement, customer experience, profitability, productivity.”
He said he’s read so many books and listened to talks with good messaging, but too much detail to latch onto. And so, because the research is already out there, he wanted to contribute something accessible and memorable, with nuggets that are “sticky”.
“If it’s so obvious, why isn’t it so easy? Our environment is very powerful,” says Harry. “If any human lives in an environment which is reinforcing a toxicity, they’ll behave with toxicity. We don’t realize the water we swim in affects our behavior. It’s not just a willpower thing.”
This very simple concept can have an incredible impact on a company’s culture, and overall success. As Small Giants leaders know, a strong culture leads to higher rates of productivity, employee engagement, and more. And being sunny is more than appearing happy: it’s about being kind as often as possible, apologizing well, expressing gratitude (such as Uncommon Goods’ “thank you” pay), and having an overall awareness of our own behavior and how it affects those around us. Being in-tune with our own actions and how they influence our environment makes us act in a positive way more consistently, and can strengthen the psychological safety of our teams.
“The duty of a leader is to create an organization where it is easy to be kind,” says Harry.
Equally as important as practicing “being the sun”, Harry claims, is understanding the harm of “being the salt on people’s roots.”
No one is perfect at all times. But intention matters. Heliotropic people strive to be better than they are.Dr. Harry D. Cohen, Be The Sun, Not The Salt
As I spoke with Harry about the impact someone’s negative behavior can have on an environment, I gave him one example from my own experience. Myself and my colleague were on a Zoom call with another person, learning more about them and their business for a possible content collaboration. I asked the person a question about client feedback, and they immediately brushed off the question, acting like it was a waste of time, and essentially telling me to Google it. For several minutes after their response, I felt truly stupid and put-down. How dumb of me to ask such a simple question! But then, I thought about it, and it wasn’t a dumb question. I had asked the same question to many people, and it often lit them up with the opportunity to share their positive impact.
By the end of the conversation, I was able to lift myself out of my own bad mood, but it was only with the awareness of behavioral impact that I could do so. And when the person left our Zoom room, my colleague reassured me that I had done nothing wrong, but really that person had handled themself very poorly.
Harry loved the example.
“That microcosm is exactly how the world works,” he says. “Because a customer is not going to buy from that person, a colleague is not going to trust that person. One of the greatest currencies of effectiveness and success in life is trust. You didn’t feel psychologically safe in [their] presence.”
I only had to speak with this person for 30 minutes; if they behave like this with their employees, it could have a huge effect on the overall culture. But nobody is perfect all of the time, and being a positive energizer is not about being perfect, but rather catching ourselves when we’re being “salty”, and attempting to rectify those moments.
Harry posed if this person had more self awareness: “The same person could’ve said, ‘I’m sorry, I was brusque and didn’t really answer your question, let me apologize and take another crack at that.’ That would’ve been amazing. Everything would’ve been very different had the person had the presence of mind, awareness, interest, and motivation during this conversation.”
Even though my example was of a small interaction, those several minutes offered a lasting memory. It’s for this reason that building a culture isn’t just about a motto that hangs on the wall, or how we present ourselves to the outside world, but rather is built upon thousands of moment-to-moment actions and interactions.
A big part of Be The Sun, Not the Salt is the importance of language.
Say what you mean and mean what you say and don’t say it mean.
Dr. Harry D. Cohen, Be The Sun, Not The Salt
The words we use and how we say them are a huge part of our environmental impact, not just for the people around us, but also for our own mentality.
“We don’t even realize what we’re saying when we say something like ‘I gotta go do this thing for my son.’ Versus ‘I get to go do this thing for my son.’,” says Harry. The first expresses burdened responsibility, while the second expresses gratitude. “It’s a mindset shift, and our words can do wonders, both in diagnosing what we’re thinking, and helping us to think better, and to act better, and to impact others better.”
By being kinder to ourselves, we’re more likely to show kindness and gratitude to those around us. And if you’re a leader, that means positively impacting employees who may then in turn express kindness and gratitude to customers or clients. One example of a Small Giants leader who leads with his heart is Jay Wilkinson, founder & CEO of Firespring, who put his own career at risk for the benefit of caring for his employees.
While it’s important to be conscious of our own language, it’s also crucial to be mindful of our colleagues’ language, by being, as Harry puts it, an Olympic listener.
[An] executive said when she learned to listen more deeply, she became more sensitive to things that were unspoken as well as those that were spoken. As she began to observe more closely and become a more careful listener, she found that she could discern what people really needed.Dr. Harry D. Cohen, Be The Sun, Not The Salt
All of the anecdotes and direction given by Harry in his book seem fairly obvious, but they’re not always our automatic responses in real life. It takes time and intention, and Harry says the best cultures are formed when the leaders show up with genuine authenticity. They also are consistent: there are hundreds of minute-to-minute opportunities in a day for someone to make a positive or unfortunate negative impact on a culture and the people around them.
He offered me his own example of a group that he meets with weekly. It’s a collective of car dealerships, and the general managers who all run their operations slightly differently. The meeting’s purpose is to go over metrics, but Harry helps them to kick off every session with 20 minutes of “soft” announcements, such as offering shout-outs, appreciation, and success stories. Now that the group has been practicing this for several months, they relayed to Harry that showing up consistently with vulnerability and authenticity has allowed them to create their own positive, cooperative culture. While before they were simply a group of managers reporting on numbers, they now offer each other support, and even direct business to each other when the opportunity arises.
While this particular format is generating great success for Harry’s example group, he also cautions that building culture isn’t prescriptive. It’s great to look at how successful companies go about implementing these processes (we have some great examples of Small Giants Community businesses celebrating their employees), but he says that each company has to look to and listen to their employees, and find a method that feels the most authentic for them. For some, it may be starting every team meeting with a few minutes of voicing gratitude, while for others, it may be creating a conversation on Slack solely for shout-outs.
“Get our teams and cultures to be supportive of one another,” says Harry. He emphasizes how crucial it is to celebrate those sunny moments, like someone going out of their way to help a new hire. “It was the sun when the person did it, but culturally, you could create an even better environment by pointing it out.”
“We are unbelievable emotional beings,” says Harry. “The essence of this work is how to create an environment culturally where people feel emotionally supported.”
He knows from firsthand experience how difficult it is to cultivate positive culture in a business. As the owner of the Black Pearl restaurant in Ann Arbor, he has to put in constant and consistent effort to relay to his employees the culture that they should be fostering for each other, and their customers. Particularly in an industry with high turnover, in which he says the intention has to be really clear with each new hire.
“You have to make it explicit,” he says of introducing the culture to his new employees.
In the last couple of years, it seems like there’s been an increase in “saltiness” and negative behavior perpetuated in the media. Harry sees this as proof that his work with Be The Sun, Not The Salt is more important than ever, and that we’re in a time when people have to make a really conscious choice about what kind of impact they want to have.
“Incivility, which is being salty, is horrible,” says Harry. “And it’s so easy to see it all around us, and the media’s no friend. I have to stay optimistic about humanity, because there’s so much salt and incivility in the world. I want to do my part, and I’m going to do it til I die, to add less nasty to the world, and see if we can add a little more love and sun.”
Within the Small Giants Community, we’ve seen how purpose-driven companies can be really resilient when it comes to battling saltiness, in both their internal and external environments. While we love to celebrate leaders who are creating healthy, positive cultures, it’s also a nice reminder that we can all constantly improve, and that it’s the little moments that make the biggest difference.
Consider how you might “be the sun” for somebody today, be it at work or elsewhere. Try smiling with intention at somebody, and experience the ripple effect it can have on the whole room. I might just go buy a coffee for the person in line behind me.