Nature requires engagement by design. Without participation, life doesn’t exist.

Nature runs on sunlight, though sunlight alone isn’t enough. Nature is designed to depend on the relationship between sunlight and photosynthesis. Sunlight sends energy to the earth. However, it only works if there are leaves, algae, and grass that photosynthesizes the energy of the sun into life-giving nutrients. This relationship between sunlight and photosynthesis teaches us lessons about employee engagement.

Nature requires engagement (photosynthesis) of leaves and grass that is essential to all life on the planet. Sunlight also falls on the moon, but it doesn’t support life because there are no trees or green living plants on the moon.

Creating Authentic Engagement

Many organizations struggle with generating authentic engagement from their staff. If we took the lesson of sunlight and photosynthesis and applied it to employee engagement, how might it change the way we lead employees?

Nature is designed to make engagement essential, but organizations often create inauthentic invitations for employees to engage. These strategies reinforce employees’ belief that their perspectives and ideas aren’t really needed or wanted.

What if we thought of employee engagement as essential in our organizations? How would it change the way we approached engagement? Would we articulate why it mattered to the employee and organization? Would we design engagement as an authentic invitation to share their thoughts and ideas?

The second way nature requires engagement is by depending on self-organization. As a living system, nature depends on self-organization to create effective and productive systems. Self-organization is a manifestation of engagement. Species and plant life don’t require someone in authority to tell them what to do. This Zen saying epitomizes the nature of self-organization:

“Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”

Nature isn’t designed to wait for a leader to usher in spring or give the grass permission to grow. Grass, trees, and plants all grow on their own. Butterflies change their migration patterns based on feedback from the climate, and seasons continue to cycle over the year. Nature depends on the ability of the individual and collective ecosystem to continue to organize their own behavior and adaptation as needed.

To an organization, successful self-organization means that employees can initiate and organize their own work while making sure their work aligns with the higher purpose of the organization. When we expect our employees to self-organize, we design our organizations so that our employees engage in a deep and significant way. Every day they bring active engagement to their work. They aren’t waiting to be told or asking what to do. Rather they are aligning their behavior and decisions to support the organization. If we want to invite self-organization into the workplace, we would develop and unleash self-organization instead of attempting to control our employees.

These two lessons from nature can help us rethink how to design engagement within our organization. How can we make engagement essential to any decision-making process? Can we reward self-organization to make engagement a daily behavior? How can we design engagement processes that don’t waste people’s time and are meaningful for participants? Can we lead from a living system mindset instead of implying that only the organizational leaders “own” the organization? What are the conditions that are conducive to authentic engagement and self-organization? These are a few of the questions organizational leaders need to ask to help them design environments that are full of engagement.

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. She writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based on lessons from nature and living systems at