Leading with Nature

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Organizational Culture: Soil and Nourishment for Staff Growth

Two pots of pepper plants, started from the same seedlings, nourished with different amounts of soil and water.

Author: Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD

Early this summer I was minding my own business, shoveling mulch in my community garden plot, when a man came down the sidewalk and spoke to me across the fence. “Hello,” he hollered, as though we were old friends. He gave me a small tray of pepper seedlings and a bag of assorted seeds. He wanted me to give him some mulch for his own potted plants at home. Learning that he would become my gardening neighbor the next season, as his name was on the waiting list for a plot, I agreed to fill up the plastic bag he brought with our community mulch.  

While the man has not yet reappeared, the pepper plants live in my garden, and a few live on my apartment balcony. Some got planted in the large blue pot you see in this picture, with four or five gallons of good soil. I never managed to obtain more large pots and soil for the remaining seedlings, which, well, remain seedlings. You can see them in the small, dark green pot: pale and stunted.  

I have never grown peppers before, so I did not know what to expect. In fact, the three well-nourished plants are nearly three feet tall and have three dozen buds that will grow into peppers. Those in the small green pot are 1/2 foot tall and, needless to say, will not be producing buds or peppers. For comparison, the peppers I grew in the community garden (not pictured) are one to 1 1/2 feet tall. I gave them all as much water as their soil could hold and plenty of sunshine. 

Why such a difference? Did I pick the three healthiest plants to go in the large blue pot? Possibly, but that doesn’t seem to explain the huge difference. Is it the quality of soil? Or the quanity of soil? Something supported the innate potential in those three seedlings to grow vibrant and strong.

The stunning difference in outcomes made me think of how organizational culture is like soil.  a healthy culture, organizational members can grow and thrive, and help the organization generate revenue and positive impact. They produce ideas which serve as seeds for an innovative future. While every organization needs a culture unique to its mission, purpose, history, context, and values, certain qualities are often present in the healthiest, most productive organizational cultures. 

One key quality is the shared ability to use simple concepts to keep ourselves and our colleagues from falling into pitfalls, and conversely, to be constructive together. They are methods of tracking what is happening in a group so that we don’t run through the guardrails together by proceeding without questioning faulty assumptions. Or supporting each other by building on what others have said to create the strongest ideas and outcomes. It’s the shared understanding that we all bring gifts and goodwill to a process, even if it doesn’t look like it on the surface. Here’s an example:

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