A friend recently sent me this reminder: When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower. This triggered a juxtaposition between this strategy and the usual strategy we employ when an employee isn’t performing at work. Our usual strategy is to “fix the person.” We use several tactics to get the employee to be more productive or competent. We structure their work to hold them more accountable, we initiate more control to get them to do what we want, and we supervise them more closely through micro management. And if none of these strategies work, we put them on a performance improvement plan that uses all these tactics.

The danger of default thinking

While these strategies are familiar, we may not recognize the background assumptions that are driving their use. When we see our organization as an object, we see the people in them as parts of the larger whole. When we employ a parts-mentality, if there is a problem with a worker, we see that worker as the problem. So, our focus is on fixing the broken part through holding them more accountable or increasing their skills or competence. This thinking sees the primary value of a staff member as their ability to function in their position. And if they can’t, they need to be removed and replaced with another worker who can perform in their position. That is how we respond to a broken part in a machine.

The danger in this default is that our organizations aren’t objects, they are living entities and therefore the strategy for working with a person who isn’t performing must come from a living system framework instead of an inert object. The flower that doesn’t bloom is embedded in a larger environment. The relationship between the flower and its environment is interdependent. Therefore, diagnosing the problem with the flower can not be understood from a parts mentality. Instead we need to see how the flower is interacting with its larger environment and what might be hindering its ability to thrive.

Here are strategies that are effective is we see the problem employee within a living system.

  1. Nutrients: If flowers don’t bloom, they might not be receiving the right nutrients. In an organization, nutrients for employees are knowledge, skills, and support that help them learn how to perform the job and continue to help them learn and grow in the position.
  2. Fit with the environment: Flowers don’t thrive if the soil isn’t a good fit with what they need to thrive. If a plant likes sandy soil and we plant it in rich loam, the plant won’t thrive. In organizations, we hope we find the right position for a person and it is a good fit with their skills, but sometimes the employee is not in the position that allows them to bring their highest value to the organization.
  3. Hostile environment: Sometimes flowers don’t bloom because they are being crowded out by other plants, or they have become root bound and need to be split apart and replanted with space to grow. Organizations can have healthy or hostile workplaces. If we approached performance problems from this framework, we would look to the work environment to see if it needs to be transformed so staff members can perform better.

What are the conditions that are conducive to helping employees thrive into the future?

In a living system, this question is the first thing we need to ask to help an organization create workplaces where workers can thrive and contribute at their highest ability. However, this question only gets asked if we see our organization as a living system instead of an object. A living system is a networked, dynamic, and interdependent environment. Therefore, we can’t solve an employee performance issue without looking at the larger environment of the organizational systems. A living system would look to the supervisor, the team, the clarity of roles and responsibilities, the reward systems, the quality of relationships, shared higher purpose, the feedback loops, and the knowledge and skill the person has and/or needs to thrive. These are examples of expanding our thinking to include more than the individual who isn’t performing. It looks to the environment of the organization to help us understand the conditions that are helping or hindering an employee’s capacity to thrive.

Stating the obvious

Productivity is an organizational need. If we were serious about productivity, we would start by letting go of our default thinking that an organization was an object and to fix productivity we need to focus on individual employees. Instead we would replace that thinking with seeing productivity from a living system mindset.

This would cause us to ask different questions, and develop strategies that influence the culture of the organization so our processes, procedures, policies, values, guiding principles, purpose, relationships, and support (nutrients) were aligned with the kind of productivity we aspire to!

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2019) 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 in lessons from nature and living systems at www.kathleenallen.net

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