a Healthy Organization
by Judith Anderson

In my leisure time, I am a gardener. The things I learn from gardening influence and inspire my outlook on life and business. For example, nurturing a healthy business organization is similar to cultivating a garden. It requires attention, care, and among other things, 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 can be easy to think of weeds as "bad." There can be a demand that the weed go and not come back - an irritation - "you shouldn't be here" - a thinking that the weed means something is wrong. All of a sudden I am pulling weeds instead of cultivating my garden. Instead of treasuring the blossoms, I might 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, in my experience 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 for herself what a weed is and what a flower is: what behaviors make it easier (i.e. require less time, fewer resources and less stress) to reach my 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 practice this strategy in my professional life. My publisher, Silver Falls Press, had arranged for a conference call for me with the dean of a local university to discuss an upcoming presentation on leadership skills that I was to give to an audience of executives. The date was set, and then one of the members of the committee skimmed my book, The Path to Corporate Nirvana, and decided it did not apply to them. He explained to the dean that he felt the book applied to entry level employees or lower level managers and would not hold value for their group of senior level executives and business academicians.

At the onset of the conversation, the individual questioning the value of my presentation was clearly intent on demonstrating that the material in the book was not a good fit for their program. This was clear from his tone and the nature of his remarks that "these kinds of issues might show up in small companies or with junior people, but senior management at the large corporations we deal with have generally moved past these kinds of issues." He seemed to bristle particularly at the topic of emotions, not seeing it as relevant.

In the past, I might have withdrawn from the conversation, thinking "if you don't see the value in this (or me), the heck with you." In other words, I might have yanked this relationship out of my garden as in "who needs the hassle?" I watched myself get angry and experience being attacked and made wrong. I became acutely aware of my experience. So this is what it feels like to be made wrong! So this is what it is like to fear failure, to want to withdraw from confrontation for fear of not being good enough.

Then I described for them a client whom that very week had withdrawn from articulating an important issue to his boss because the boss had initially said the idea wasn't relevant. In speaking with my client, I had asked: "How big of an increase in your department's productivity would have occurred if you had gotten your boss to see your point?" And he had answered, "Easily forty percent." I described how this was a senior person in a $40 billion organization. I was able to be very present in describing the experience because I was having a similar experience right at that moment! This was a helpful example and we moved forward with plans for a presentation. This was a useful learning opportunity for me. I am beginning to see how withdrawal from conflict is no longer serving the garden of my experience. I am weeding out that behavior and learning how to hold for my experience without attacking the experience of others. This will further enhance my ability to coach others having this experience, accelerating my productivity.

Also recently, I had the opportunity to address an audience of 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 argument, "If they can't understand this point they are dumb," come 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 came 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 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 in going to their next level. 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. This is helpful to see. 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.

Judith Anderson is the author of the recently published The Path to Corporate Nirvana: An Enlightened Approach to Accelerating Productivity.

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