cultivating a healthy organization

By profession I am a business consultant, but in my leisure time I am a gardener. The things I learn from gardening influence and inspire my outlook on business. For example, nurturing a healthy business organization is similar to cultivating a garden. It requires attention and care; it requires weeding. If left unattended, an organization can become overtaken by workplace behaviors that, like weeds, strangle creativity, passion, enthusiasm, productivity and innovation. These unproductive behaviors include withholding support, withholding information, attacking diverse views, talking over others, intimidation, and lashing out.

For a flower to reach its full potential it must have space to grow and access to what nurtures it. Weeds can slow that process down, and so to support my garden I need to eliminate weeds. Similarly in the workplace, when I look for ways to eliminate unproductive behaviors, I encourage the potential for growth.I have found that in this elimination process, it is easy to think of weeds as “bad,” to foster a belief that they shouldn’t be there and that they mean something is wrong. Suddenly I am pulling weeds instead of cultivating my garden. Instead of treasuring the blossoms, I see only what is “bad” – those darn weeds. I become a destroyer, not a creator. Energetically, I hurt my garden as I hurl these thoughts to the earth. I contaminate the soil and my experience – joy and beauty are interrupted.

Weeds are not bad per se; they are simply plants growing where they are not needed. Similarly, it is helpful to see unproductive behaviors not as “bad,” but as behaviors that simply lower the efficiency with which aggressive goals are reached. Each gardener decides what is a weed and what is a flower. For a business leader the question is, “Which behaviors make it easier (i.e. require less time, fewer resources and less stress) to reach goals? Which behaviors make it more difficult?” This definition can change daily. When I take responsibility to cultivate the garden of my experience, I choose what to grow and nurture. I choose how to invest my time and energy to create what I want. 

In this cultivation process, first I must become aware that a habit, belief, behavior or relationship dynamic is no longer serving me, and then I can choose to weed it out. I can see this as a creative process, as making room for more of what I do want. There is no need to judge the habit, belief or relationship as wrong or bad. That will only increase aggravation. Instead, I can cultivate the garden of my experience in a positive way.

Recently, I had the opportunity to address an audience of HR diversity professionals and was surprised by the response I received from a large segment of the audience when I defined productivity as the grace and ease with which aggressive goals are met. There was an explosion of negative emotion from the group. They were fighting with me on this point. I watched my defenses come up and the interior argument, “If they can’t understand this point, they are dumb,” become present in my consciousness. I wanted to attack back and make them and this experience of a head-on encounter with resistance just plain wrong.

As I became present with the experience, I became conscious. Then I got curious. So I asked, “Can you tell me what it is about that phrase that is so troubling?” The answer was a surprise. “You have to understand, half the people in this room are Black, and when you say ‘grace and ease’ it is like you are asking us to lie down and be slaves again.” Now that was interesting! I shared a little about what it was like to have a diverse view (a “different” view) rejected so adamantly, how I wanted to make them wrong, and I wondered out loud if misunderstanding might be at the source of the resistance they were receiving from their organizations. 

Later I could see how this encounter with resistance is a little like encountering weeds in a garden. It is tempting to go on the attack, to invoke destroyer energy. In hindsight I can see that they were giving me the key to supporting them. The fighting energy, the weeding-out energy, has served them in reaching goals: they have achieved a seat at the table in their organizations and they have successfully implemented new policies that encourage a diverse work force. To go to the next level of productivity, however, it may take giving up the fight, listening, and building collaborative win-win relationships. I couldn’t quite see this fully at the time because I was attacking being attacked. My intention going forward is to have even less resistance to encountering weeds (unproductive behaviors) than I have had in the past, and thereby continue to cultivate and support others as they cultivate healthy learning organizations.

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