In organisations, connections often occur chaotically, and they multiply in profusion. In the plans of hierarchical organisations, connections typically occur officially only in one place and in two directions: up to one’s immediate supervisor, and down to one’s nearest subordinate. This creates a chain of command within the exclusive lines of a hierarchy.
If employees feel thwarted within these arrangements, they usually find a way around it. They either compromise these hierarchical impositions, leading people within the organisation to overlook certain institutional breaches in favor of a preferred communal good, or they move underground where they find other, less noticeable places of connectivity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that organisational culture is made up of interconnecting circles of complex human activity, patterns of energy, webs of human relationships, conversations, and decisions.
The word culture is derived from the word for agricultural cultivation. Cultivation of the soil requires time and attention, nurturing, protection, patience, understanding, and preparedness for environmental challenges.
Usage of the best quality seed, sapling, or plant does not yield the desired result if the environment is not right for its growth. Cultivation is also about investing in the health of the whole ecosystem. With investment each living organism will live and grow to its fullest.
Similarly, in human organisational systems, the same person will perform differently in different environments. People working in multi-layered human organisational systems require different environmental stimulus and support. The primary job of a leader is to create an environment based on respect and trust, where people willingly give their best irrespective of the challenges.
Insights From a Flower Garden
There is ample post-COVID-19 transformational insight to be gained from nature itself. A flower garden consists of flowers that vary in color, size, shape, height, and texture, and they perform varied functions in the ecosystem. If we look more closely, we see the flowers are held up by a structure of stems that reach from the shadow of the earth to the light of day. What we do not see is the real source of structural integrity: the root systems hidden below the surface of the soil. In the garden, everything is tied to and essentially part of the garden itself.
How does this relate to your organisation and its complex, organic and multi-layered human systems? Unfortunately, in many hierarchical institutions, the only thing that matters is the essence, the center, the apex of the organisation.
The flower garden is like the formal structure of an organisation; it is a containing vessel. Inspiring others is like planting seeds and watching them grow. The future harvest is what you plant, reap, and sow. If the content, the actual culture itself, is not provided with the proper nourishment, the contents will decay or, at best, produce mediocre results. Without proper maintenance, the flowerbed will grow out of control. All future growth will be left to chance. If the foundation of the vessel is neglected, the entire system will collapse.
Every Seed Has Potential
Every seed planted in the flower garden has potential. Sadly, not every employee has an opportunity to reach potential, perhaps because their spirit within has not yet been recognised. Leaders have a responsibility to engage with that potential and create organisational supports that recognise limitless individual and collective opportunities.
To enable the natural and organic elements of an organisation to foster change, sustenance must be on offer. Flowers start as seeds with a certain knowledge of how to be flowers. As previously mentioned, it is the soil (the environment) that nurtures and sustains them to grow into beautiful flowers. We are just the same; requiring nurturing environments to learn and grow.
Sometimes the flower garden needs a trim! Sometimes for us to blossom, it is necessary to change our own beliefs and our own behaviour. If you want to change the environment, start from the inside out. Don’t let your own misplaced assumptions (or “weeds”) take over and send a signal to the flowers to just give up. Not all leaders recognise weeds–they are often disguised as flowers–and it doesn’t matter how much nutrition is put in the soil if the weeds get bigger and kill off the flowers.
If organisations are a living human system—ecology of overlapping, relational spheres—then leadership may be defined as shaping life-enhancing conditions.
An experienced gardener will always be on the lookout for sprouting weeds. They know weeds can potentially damage and destroy their garden. They don’t sit back and let the weeds grow and then complain and blame others for the state of the culture.
Sometimes no matter how deep down you dig and try to fertilise and revitalise the soil beneath, there may be people above that keep spraying poison on the surface, killing off not just the weeds, but any new growth. Over time, this poison seeps deep down below and kills off the existing roots and any chance for the garden to succeed.
A good gardener takes immediate action. At what point do leaders of an organisation stop playing politics? For example, how much is it costing organisations to entertain toxic behaviours that suffocates teams and organisational human systems? Strong leaders address the core issues of what is really destroying their business, and they take action from this.
People centered leadership is grounded by the organisation’s extensive root systems. People-centered leaders see the roots as the foundation of healthy relationship patterns. They see the condition of an organisation’s cultural root system as having a profound effect on their overall organisational wellness. As mentioned earlier, organisations are patterns of energy, webs of human relationships, conversations, and decisions. Elasticity and effectiveness of the organisational glue is determined by the overall relationship welfare of the organisation.
While organisations can tolerate a fair amount of damage to their upper parts, they are not nearly so forgiving of damage to their roots.
It’s important for leaders to create a culture that is solidly embedded in ethical principles and to think about organisations as living systems with the capacity to self-organise, sustain themselves, and move toward greater complexity. We often hear leaders say they want their organisations to be adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, and ever-learning. This sounds like a living system, yet many leaders only know how to lead and manage a human organisation as if it were a machine.
Let’s reflect on this passage from ‘Warrior of the Light’ by Paul Coelho: When the ‘Warrior of the Light’ starts planting his garden, he notices that his neighbour is there, spying. He likes to give advice on when to sow actions, when to fertilise thoughts, and water conquests. If the Warrior listens to what his neighbour is saying, he will end up creating something that is not his; the garden he is tending will be his neighbour’s idea. But a true Warrior of the Light knows that every garden has its own mysteries, which only the patient hand of the gardener can unravel. That is why he prefers to concentrate on the sun, the rain, and the seasons. He knows that the fool who gives advice about someone else’s garden is not tending to his own plants.”1
The COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed there is an abundance of brilliant minds, brave souls, compassionate hearts, technological wizards, and creative geniuses amongst us. The mechanisms for change, adaptation and growth are already present.
To maximise organisational effectiveness, people-centered leaders can create workplace environments that tap into the possibilities, skills, and talents of everyone in the organisation, and overcome the intellectual, emotional and systemic barriers that get in the way.
Reflecting on your personal COVID-19 learnings, are you asking yourself these questions?
- How does your organisation grow if your employees are not?
- Is your organisational leadership and culture crippling personal growth potential?
- Whose job is it to fix it?
- Are you preparing the ground by nourishing it with learning and removing the weeds?
- Are you showering praise and encouragement and letting things grow?
- What code of conduct must you model in order to show everyone the rewards of learning?
- Coelho, P. “Warrior of the Light”. HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.