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Managers: Think Like a Gardener

By Dan Bobinski

As we transition from spring to summer, many of us are spending time in our gardens. As for me, I’m growing fewer vegetables this year, but I’ve put in a couple of flower berms that require my attention. Regardless of whether you’re tending flowers or vegetables, certain things need to get done on a regular basis for your garden to do well. Interestingly, there are some parallels and truisms for gardening that also have application for managers.

One such truism is that gardeners don’t make seeds grow. The genetic coding inside each plant does that. I know this sound elementary, but stay with me.

Because gardeners recognize that seeds have within them the genetic coding that’s needed for growth, gardeners know their job is to create the conditions that seeds need in order to sprout. As a result, they are always inquisitive about the conditions of their garden. Is fertilizer needed? More water? Less water? Are the plants getting enough light? Are there any unwanted pests or diseases?

Gardeners ask these questions and make any needed adjustments because they know things won’t go well if they simply give a plant an intimidating look and bark out a command to “grow!”

In the same way that a gardener can’t make seeds grow, a manager cannot motivate people. The word motivation literally means “a reason to move,” and because people have their own reasons to move, everyone already has motivation. It’s built into them, just like the genetic coding within a seed.

What’s strange is when we see managers bark at their employees, telling them to get motivated. They usually get the same result as gardeners telling a plant to grow. Isn’t it curious that we accept behavior in managers that we would laugh at in a gardener?

Let’s take a look at the root of this all-too-frequent problem. Whenever a manager is frustrated by a perceived lack of motivation, either the manager hasn’t figured out – nor inquired about – the employee’s motivations, or the manager has created an environment that squelches the employee’s natural drive.

The solution is twofold: discover and create.

I’m amazed how many managers talk among themselves, saying things like, “I can’t seem to get Jack motivated.” Even if managers take the initiative to ask other managers, the best they’re going to get is a guess. The most effective way to discover what motivates Jack is to ask Jack directly! It is not difficult to engage a person in conversation and ask about his or her interests.

Another problem might be that the manager is inadvertently stifling Jack’s motivation. I call this creating an environment that’s demotivating. Fixing this can be a delicate process, but a good manager works to improve his or her management style, striving to learn how his or her actions and attitudes are impacting others.

This often begs the question “What conditions should we create?” Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. What motivates one person may not motivate the next. And, as much as it’s hard to fathom, just because something motivates us doesn’t mean it will, or even should, motivate anyone else.

Every person has different reasons for working, and those reasons are as individual as the person. The good news is that managers have an advantage over gardeners. Whereas plants can’t speak up about what’s going on, team members can communicate! Managers can ask questions and learn what conditions will be best for optimal employee performance.

The key, though, is to be inquisitive. We must ask. We must observe. But more important, we must want to know. Let me repeat that last one: We must want to know. If you are a manager and you don’t want to know what motivates your employees, then perhaps it is time to reconsider whether you should be in a managerial role.

Assuming you want to be an effective manager, I strongly recommend you discover what conditions your team needs to be their best, and work to create those conditions.

Moving on to another gardening analogy, you probably know that gardeners select plants appropriate to the purpose and location of their gardens. For example, if a garden is in full sun, gardeners choose plants that do well in sun. If the area is mostly in the shade, then plants are chosen that prefer shade. In the same way, managers must be aware of the purpose of their team and select employees that will best fulfill that purpose.

After all, a gardener doesn’t buy just any old plant for a flower garden. If the garden is for flowers, gardeners shop only for flowers, and look for the best they can find. Similarly, a manager should have clear job descriptions for all the positions on the team, plus have a good interview strategy to identify the best possible applicants.

Pulling weeds is another good analogy. In a garden, weeds use up a lot of soil nutrients and water, thus diminishing what’s available for the plants that are supposed to be there. In the workplace, weeds represent rumors and non-productive attitudes that deplete energy away from the real work that must be done. A manager should work to eliminate rumors and poor attitudes to get the best levels of productivity.

Of the several analogies listed above, I believe the most important parallel is to be inquisitive. I don’t know any managers who majored in clairvoyance. Personally, three months ago I didn’t know much about some of the flowers I selected for my new berms, but a bit of study and some questions to experts helped me create conditions to get beautiful flowers.

The bottom line in all this is to be curious and get feedback on the conditions of your workplace. Seek to learn how it could be better by asking employees what conditions they’d like to be able to perform at their best. Then, by tending to those conditions, it’s very likely your workplace will thrive.

 

Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. runs two businesses. One helps teams and individuals learn how to use Emotional Intelligence. The other helps companies improve their training programs. He’s also a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. Reach him at daniel@eqfactor.net or 208-375-7606.

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