Nature can teach us a great deal about employee engagement. Given that probably all workers, unless they’re providing essential services, are working from home right now, it might be good to apply the lessons that nature uses to create an engaged ecosystem that is cohesive and aligned with the goals of the larger system.

Unleashing vs. Control

Nature is designed to unleash self-organization in plants and species. This self-organization is so pervasive that active engagement is fundamental to existence. If a plant or animal can’t self-organize, it is dying or dead. There is no apathy in nature, only engagement. Nature also has a way of creating cohesion within this unleashing of self-organization. Through its design, nature creates conditions conducive to the life of future generations. This higher purpose and the following design structures create a cohesiveness and direction for all the self-organization that has been unleashed in its system:

  • runs on sunlight
  • waste is never wasted
  • fits form to function
  • rewards cooperation
  • banks on diversity
  • curbs excess from within through feedback
  • depends on self-organization
  • taps the power of limits

Nature’s design also requires active partnership. For example, sunlight provides free energy but needs photosynthesis to transform energy into nutrients that fuel all life on this planet. What if we saw leadership as sunlight that couldn’t manifest unless our employees chose to photosynthesize that energy? This outlook values leadership and followership as an active, engaged partnership, not a hierarchical rank ordering of who matters and who doesn’t.

Nature doesn’t have a CEO or leadership team that directs action and supervises species and plant life. Instead, it unleashes talent and supports that talent to contribute to its higher purpose. This is a very different method than most of our hierarchical organizations operate with. We have CEOs, leaders, directors, managers and supervisors whose primary role is to control the people below them on the organizational chart – hence the term “span of control” found in management theories. This control, often framed as accountability, actively undermines self-organization in employees.

Opportunities to Experiment

The recent announcement by Salesforce asking employees in California to work remotely in March due to coronavirus is becoming a more common decision among organizations across the country. This response gives organizations the opportunity to experiment with what supervision involves when you count on your employees to work from home rather than sitting at a desk in the office.

Can we think of supervision differently and see it through the eyes of nature? If so, what would this look like?

  1. We would strengthen our articulation of the larger purpose that all employees are working toward in the company.
  2. We would coach our employees to strengthen their ability to be self-directed and self-organizing.
  3. We would start observing and learning what supervision strategies support productivity and engagement when people work from home. We would also observe what is not working and needs to be let go of.
  4. We would see this time as an opportunity to practice adaptive behavior. And help people experiment to see what works for them when they aren’t in the office.
  5. We would reserve time in our video call staff meetings to reflect on what is working and what the team is struggling with, to identify patterns of how work is changing and to determine what we need to do differently during this time.

If we do these things, we will discover new ways to unleash talent and engagement under different conditions. These experiments will help us become better supervisors when our workforce returns to the office.