I’m an enthusiastic but lousy gardener. Thankfully, Rick and I don’t depend on my crops for survival. If we did, we’d be very hungry! But even though I’ve made plenty of mistakes while digging in the dirt, I continue to learn and improve. I’ve also seen how my garden offers lessons on improving my resilience, productivity, and health at work. Thankfully, I don’t have to wait until next season to apply these leadership lessons from my garden. Are the conditions right? Each of my vegetable plants has an array of needs. I am constantly experimenting to see where different crops will thrive. Do they want a sandy or alkaline soil? Is this patch of ground full of nutrients or has it been depleted through overuse? How much sun does this spot receive and is it early morning dappled light or late afternoon heat? Is it too windy?
Finding the right “soil” for ourselves is also key. What do we need in our work? Extraversion? Creativity? Competition? Routine? Stability? Excitement? I’ve tried many different career soils, in some I’ve thrived and in some I have languished. I was glad when I moved into corporate training. It’s been the right soil for me.
Stress reduces productivity. If a plant is stressed it will, like many people, struggle valiantly against mounting foes but yield little. I’m reminded of a yellow, pock-marked bean plant that only produced one or two beans during the entire season. Before wasting too many more resources, I yanked it up and started over. Likewise, are we willing to pull the plug on processes or projects when a situation isn’t working for us?
A friend, Mona, is true to her name: she moans a lot. She’s extremely unhappy in her job and has talked about leaving it for many years. As her unhappiness grows, she’s crabby and angry, especially when hearing about another’s good fortune. Mona is terrified of change and so, even though she is desperate to quit, she struggles to persevere. And like my plants, her afflictions are obvious to everyone around her. Mona may produce a bean or two but she spends most of her energy fighting enemies from without and within.
Are we nurtured and is there room for growth? As a new gardener, I often tried to place too many plants within a small space. I was enthused and the plants were small. But as they grew, my veggies succumbed to diseases, died inexplicably, or were stunted and under-performing. I had learned to feed my seedlings compost but I hadn’t given them enough space to thrive. At work do we have the “space” to grow? Is there time and energy to improve and learn new skills? Do we give ourselves enough psychological space to relax, unwind, and find our own unique nutrients? Aside from good nutritious food, how do we revitalize ourselves?
Pull up the small weeds before they get big: Despite my use of mulch (which led to slug problems), I am forced to weed regularly. I love weeding. It’s a visceral metaphor of rooting out problems. After several hours, I see a big difference — a clean area of soil. If only I could weed out my bad habits or perceptions so completely! At work I need to pull out the small weeds–negative misunderstandings or attitudes– before they become big intractable problems for my team.
Seasons change: A garden is not a static place. Not only do seasons change, but year to year, the amount of rain, sun, heat, and wind can differ drastically. Two years ago, a huge brood of chipmunks decimated my tomatoes as they ripened. The next year they left my crop in peace. Tending a vegetable garden reminds me to be attentive to the actual conditions of today (not yesterday or tomorrow). I strive to be this response-able at work too.
During wintry days it’s fun to daydream about gardens and Spring. As I skim through seed catalogs I think of my tough little plants and what they teach me about being productive, resilient, and healthy at work.
Laura Lewis-Barr is president of Traning4Breakthroughs, and she is an expert presentation skills coach based in Chicago, Illinois. She teaches team building events in Chicago, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, St Louis, and other cities in the Midwest, and works with clients all over the world.