Beware of the Buffalo Gnats

Swatting Bug1This past weekend, I was at a lovely outdoor gathering when I was the victim of a sneak attack of buffalo gnats. For those of you unfamiliar with buffalo gnats, they are an insidious little flying bug that invades the Midwest in late Spring and early Summer. And for such a tiny creature — often you can barely see them — they can have a huge impact. The next morning, I had welts on both arms and my neck that measured three inches across. And we won’t even discuss the itching!

Organizations can be invaded by buffalo gnats as well. Not literally (okay, I’m sure that happens too) but through the insidious circumstances and behaviors that we often try to simply brush away as a minor annoyance. If you’re really paying attention though, you can still hear them buzzing in the background and without preventative steps, your organization can end up with large welts . . . to staff morale, organizational culture, and ultimately to organizational impact. And I see far too many organizations scratching away these swollen annoyances without even realizing how they got there in the first place.

For the real gnats, I have consistently heard that a product called “Buggins” is the most effective repellant. It includes essential oils such as peppermint and lemongrass, along with vanilla. Apparently, no harsh chemicals are required to drive out the gnats, just a consistent application of essential oils combined with a sweet scent. You see where I’m going here, right?!?

To drive the buffalo gnats out of your organization, you need to consistently apply the essentials, and it helps to have a nice scent to make the “medicine” more palatable. In this case, the essentials may be your organizational values, your SMAC recipe, or stated expectations for behavior. The hard part is, you’re so busy with the “big things” such as meeting strategic goals, developing new programs and projects, managing a budget, and a single gnat seems like such a little thing, not worth the distraction— that is, until the welts start appearing.

Here’s where it gets counterintuitive. As a leader, you think the big things are your responsibility, and ultimately they are, but the big things are often easier to delegate than the little things. If you don’t pay attention to the “little things” like setting the tone, intervening when you see staff exhibiting behaviors that are not in keeping with organizational values, or encouraging those who are serving as positive role models — in effect, applying a protective layer of Buggins — the gnats will invade. And when that happens, the resulting welts will likely distract you and your organization from the big things that you thought should be your priority.

Apparently, the little things really aren’t.