I’ve been observing for the past few months how company cultures have been either supporting or hindering the organisation’s ability to deal effectively with the radical change brought on by covid-19. The pressure exerted by our environment or new circumstances is highlighting the best and the worst in ourselves and in our organisations. It is not fundamentally creating new behaviors but more putting what we are capable of into the light. Now why am I talking about culture canaries? 

Canaries are sentinel species and have been used in a coal mines to warn humans about the dangerous presence of carbon monoxide. Sentinels save lives to the peril of their own.

Sentinel species are organisms, often animals, used to detect risks to humans by providing advance warning of a danger. 

Wikipedia

Culture canaries are hence “sentinel people” who can ahead of time alert you of dangers, or risks of dangers, (opportunities too actually). Whether it is in your business, operations, markets or company culture. These delicate beasts are the highly sensitive people amongst your employees. Statistics would dictate that about 20% of your employees are HSP at varying levels.

HSPs may be the first to be bothered by an unhealthy situation in the workplace, which could make them seem like a source of trouble. But others will be affected in time, so their sensitivity can help you avoid problems later.

Elaine ARON, PhD

The problems are twofold: one, being sensitive to their environment means they might not find a “healthy & comfortable” space in your organisation and hence not stay long and second you don’t often listen to them anyway.

To detect the culture canaries, look for people who:

  • Are aware and affected by subtle changes in the environment (air, people’s moods, noises);
  • Are emphatic and understanding others and their needs;
  • Are conscientious and detail oriented;
  • Are easily overwhelmed when there are too many tasks or too much activity around them;
  • May appear moody, needy, shy or nervous.

In challenging times, you do need some culture canaries in your crisis management team, not just the bulldozers and superheroes. If you give the HSPs the right space, they will be able to give you a deep and subtle level of information about your organisation, to guide your strategy with a more realistic view of what your company culture is capable of supporting.