Shift the Drift

Every stream has a current. Throw a twig or a piece of paper into the water, and it will drift with the flow. This is natural. It is simply the way things work.

a picture of the current in a body of water

Organizations are similar to streams. They too have a flow. That flow is the organization’s culture. When people enter into that culture, they usually move along with the current. It is what my friends at Gap International call “the drift.”

Do you want to know what the drift is in your organization? Ask, “What are people saying about [fill in the blank]?”

For example, I used to have a colleague that no one respected. You could often hear his peers and subordinates say things like:

  • “He’s always late to meetings.”
  • “He never follows up on his assignments.”
  • “He has zero influence with his boss.”
  • “He is smart but lazy.”

You get the idea. These words revealed what people actually thought. It wasn’t evil; it was simply the drift.

But this is just an example. There’s a drift about everything: customers, authors, suppliers, employees, management, policies, etc.

The problem is that the drift can work against what you are trying to accomplish as a leader. Unfortunately, leaders rarely think about this. Yet it is a key component of effective leadership.

To put it simply: As a leader, your job is to swim against the current and shape the drift, so that it works for you, rather than against you. To do so requires at least five steps:

  1. Become aware of the drift. This is a huge challenge, because, as leaders, we swim in the same current as everyone else. It is easy to become unconscious about what is happening around us. It takes effort to wake up and become aware.
  2. Assess the specific nature of the drift. It’s worth writing down exactly what you are hearing people say. It’s especially helpful to pull your team together and ask them what they are hearing about a particular topic. Make a list.
  3. Determine that you will change the drift. If you don’t like the drift, you can change it. This is the power of leadership. But it doesn’t just happen. It takes intention, effort, and persistence.
  4. Define precisely what you want the drift to be. In 2000, when I assumed my first assignment as a divisional leader, I did an informal audit of our culture. I created two columns on a piece of paper. On the left-hand side, I wrote down the drift—what people thought about the company. On the right-hand side, I wrote down what I wanted the drift to be—what I wanted people to think about the company going forward. You can’t change something unless you know where it is and where you want it to go.
  5. Conspire with your leadership team to shift the drift. This is where it gets fun. You can get results faster than you think. But you have to make sure everyone is on the same page. You must intentionally start re-directing the drift and moving it in a positive direction.

Years ago, we had a bestselling author that became a problem. He usually had brilliant ideas. He could be warm and engaging. His books almost always succeeded. When he was good, he was very, very good.

But he also had a dark streak. He could be rude and demanding, stubborn and ungrateful. When he was bad, he could be very, very bad.

Unfortunately, as time wore on, the drift began to pool around these latter characteristics. As a result, no one wanted to work with him. He got labeled as “high maintenance.” Worse, as a result of our attitude, he became even more high maintenance—or so it seemed.

The truth was that I was as guilty as any one. As the leader, I set the tone. People listened to what I said and started moving in that direction. (Such is the power of leadership.) I had to begin by taking responsibility for the problem.

Then, as I woke up, I realized what was happening. This was not helping anyone, including me! In fact, it was working against what I really wanted to accomplish.

So rather than continue to drift with the current, I began intentionally looking for opportunities to make positive comments about this author. I ignored the negative comments that others made. Subtly, people’s perceptions began to shift. Even the author began to change for the better.

As leaders, we can’t afford to drift with the current. We have to intentionally direct it, so that we can accomplish the bigger vision to which we are called.

The drift doesn’t have to be an obstacle. If intentionally directed, it can become a powerful tool for bring about organizational change.

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  • Rachel Hauck

    Great post. So many people want positions of leadership but don’t realize it’s situations like this that can make or break them.

    Running with the big dogs isn’t easy.

    I had a similar problem in my corp days. A road warrior (trainer) was bashing the location of one of our new installs. As a showman, he had everyone laughing at his tales of horror.

    When word got back to the big boss, it wasn’t that young man’s office he visited, but mine! I learned quick how to find my influencers to change the drift of opinion about this customer.

    Shew. Fun times. ;)


  • Lawrence W. Wilson

    Here’s a question, Mike. How do you get the drift about yourself or your leadership team?

    Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am,” but I’m not certain that employees are always willing to be forthright on that question.

    How does a leader determine the drift about him- or herself?

  • Michael Hyatt


    One of the best ways to do this is through a testing instrument called a “360.” Most psychologists or HR departments can administer this. It basically asks your boss, your peers, and your subordinates to rate you on various behaviors. The content is anonymous, and it will give you a real sense of how others perceive you.



  • colleen Coble

    Great stuff, Mike! How do we find out what our drift is as an author?

  • Michael Hyatt


    This is a great question. I assume you mean the drift inside the publishing house. The drift among retailers might be interesting to know, too.

    You might think about creating a brief, short survey on a Web tool like You could then invite people to participate anonymously. I would just allow ample room for people to comment.

    Another alternative would be to have a formal 360 done. The good thing about that is that there are specific protocols for interpreting it, and you would have help doing that.


  • Marc V

    The engineer in me is tempted to go into detail about fluid dynamics and flow through a pipe, relating a physical phenomenon to a social situation. I will say that you should be aware of other’s perspective, in that a “unit” close to the wall of a pipe has a flow (velocity) slower than a “unit” in the center of the pipe.

    That same unit near the wall of the pipe is the first to feel the effect of a temperature difference outside of the pipe, though!

  • colleen Coble

    Oh I could do that, Mike! Thanks!

  • John Young

    Profound again Michael. Trouble is most of life is routine and we employee people who often bore with routine and want lights, camera action effects. Ask that Delta pilot flying a non stop from Atlanta to LA everyday about routine. Ask the FedEx guy running the same route every day but each job has specific grinding thankless demands.
    I’ve seen big publishers get basic publicity plans slip because they spend all day in a conference room looking for a WOW effect. It’s hard perhaps to remember our Nelson customer probably drives a Toyota not a limo and is plenty content basic stuff. But when we drift and when routine sets in not only does the company suffer but more importantly our customer does because those boring details, like shipping the order today, not tomorrow, aren’t held to accountability.

  • Joe Tye

    It’s ironic that managers spend incredible amounts of time planning for the architecture of their physical facilities and yet almost none thinking about the “invisible architecture” of core values, corporate culture, and workplace environment that is ultimately far more important in determining the destiny of their organizations (and their careers). Values Coach has a 25-page special report that I’d be happy to send anyone in PDF format – simply send me an email at

  • jen_chan, writer

    Good point. This is one of the things that makes a leader a leader, isn’t it? It’s part of the job description. When people look up to you, they may consciously or unconsciously follow your trail of thought. But it isn’t easy. And that’s why not everyone becomes an effective leader.

  • Kyle Chowning

    I’m suddenly aware of the power of my own tongue. Let’s not forget that this doesn’t apply just to corporate culture, but to every sphere of influence we participate in (whether voluntary or involuntary): church, friendships, marriage, family, all of it.

  • Brandon Bruce

    Great post! However, your frequency of posting may be DRIFTing… Kidding!

    Thanks for the insights.


  • Timothy Fish

    There are many different types of leaders. Some leaders are paid to be leaders while others are average Joes who are leaders all the same. The paid manager may have a lot of power to influence the drift of the organization in some ways, but the average Joe may have a lot of power in what he says as well.

    I have an interest in church leadership and what motivates a church to take action. A pastor often has a lot of influence, but there are also a lot of pastors who have been run out of churches by average Joes. Drift seems to be a good way to describe how churches move forward or backward. If someone tells people what to do they will probably refuse, but by making smaller changes that lead up to bigger things the path will slowly change and the church members will think it was their idea the whole time.

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