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:

Imagine you are in a meeting where one person (Sally) is being contentious. Most people are rolling their eyes, because they’ve heard it all before from Sally. Yet one person, Ahmed, seeks to understand Sally’s motivations, and asks, “what are you trying to protect?” Sally, who happens to be the Controller, says, “I am not against innovation and trying new things, and I want to protect the sound financial management which we have worked so hard to build. I don’t want to get in the way of progress, and I don’t want us to lose our sterling financial reputation.” Once this is out on the table, everyone relaxes and realizes that many had assumed that the financial management would be protected, but this had not been clear in their ideas or statements. Others hadn’t really thought about it. Together the group then explores how to keep necessary safeguards in place while allowing new space and possibilty for innovation.  

This example highlights how one person can use a simple concept (e.g., that people who resist change may be trying to protect something that genuinely needs to be protected) to create a more positive outcome for all. No one simple concept or framework can serve in every circumstance, so it is good to know many of them. Likewise, no single person will be in the right frame of mind to step in and make this helpful inquiry all the time. So it’s good for many people to gain skill and confidence in making such inquiries. In fact, we can productively use such concepts with our own thoughts as well. 

This kind of culture (e.g., soil) allows everyone to grow strong and productive, and provides helpful balance so that when exciting change is happening, what is good and valuable to the organization is not forgotten and lost.  Indeed, positive tradition and innovative change can work synergistically to support growth that sustains over time, and avoids “overshoot and collapse,” which is painful and costly. 

Opening Creativity, based in the Washington DC Metro Area, helps nonprofit organizations develop these kinds of healthy cultures with engagement of leaders and members so that the outcomes are their own, and not something designed or imposed from the outside. What people own, they will support. Please share this post with other nonprofit organizations who may benefit from these ideas. Contact Opening Creativity to learn how your nonprofit can strengthen its cultural soil and encourage its members to be as healthy and productive as those big pepper plants. Usually the investment of time and resources will pay for itself by re-engaging distracted or disgruntled staff members, reducing loss of resources due to unproductive tensions, building leadership capacity across the organization, and increasing revenue and impact through enhanced strategy, collaboration, and teamwork.


Author: openingcreativity

Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD, is Principal of Opening Creativity LLC, which helps nonprofits & multi-sector teams reach their highest potential through participatory processes, leadership development, consensus building & more. Please visit Opening Creativity's web site at www.openingcreativity.com.

6 thoughts on “Organizational Culture: Soil and Nourishment for Staff Growth

  1. Very thought provoking article; particularly the question “what are you trying to protect?” I have long noticed, with very few exceptions, that when you run into angry, aggressive, stubborn behavior that some kind of fear lies at the bottom of it. The fear may or may not be relevant to the issue under discussion–it could be something from ones personal life. The thing is it can be very productive if one can see these not as “negative” behaviors but as indicators that there is further information not on the table–just as was the case when Ahmed asked Sally what she was protecting. Some cases may not be about “protecting” but there is about a 99% chance there is some fear that underlies the situation.

  2. Kris. Thanks so much for sharing this story. From reading this my attention seems to rest on the man who provided you with the seedlings. I’d like to view this interaction as being the impetus for this whole experience. Although you’ve yet to see this person again, I draw a comparison between his role and one of a change agent. From the brief interaction you had with him, you were introduced to an experience that you might not have discovered on your own. You were stretched to do something that you had no prior experience, planting pepper seedlings. It stretched you to move beyond what had been routine or habit and look at what happened as a result. From merely noticing the different growth rates of the plants you’ve moved into this whole process of inquiry. In a way, isn’t that what we do as consultants? Sometimes we just show up as that outside influence, getting people and organizations to move beyond what is routine and rational and try something new. This opens up a process of inquiry, much like what you’ve experience. It enables us to start asking questions, to imagine and dream a bit, and good things can happen in this space. Thanks again. Cheers!

  3. Thank you Elyse for your sharing your experiences. I have observed something similar, and like to encourage people to look for the beauty beneath dysfunction. Anger can be a sign that someone cares deeply about the issue, and that passion can be harnessed for good. (And I don’t mean to suggest that anger is necessarily dysfunction.) It is true that sometimes the person is trying to protect turf or similar, which is not very helpful. There is a great chance, however, that some useful statement or viewpoint needs to be released, however much it goes against the current in the group. When people are different in their views, it is good to embrace that dimension of diversity, because we need many viewpoints and ways of thinking and valuing to create a viable whole. Thank you again Elyse!

  4. Tony, you’re welcome, and thanks for sharing what caught your attention. You put your finger on something that could become another blog post, because the man was from Afghanistan, a culture that is very different from mine, having grown up in the United States. At the time, I was also struck by his behavior which I saw as different and unexpected. He seemed to operate in a more informal economy and greater community consciousness than I was used to. Your focus on the potential of a single, outsider action reminds me of a quote from a favorite book, The Farthest Shore, by Ursula K. LeGuin, where the seasoned wizard, Ged, is counseling his young charge, Prince Arren: “Do you see, Arren, how an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that’s the end of it. When that rock is lifted, the earth is lighter; the hand that bears it is heavier. When it is thrown, the circuits of the stars respond, and where it strikes or falls the universe is changed.” So there can be great power a single person’s act, and we may never know what domino effect our action may tip off. Or what “butterfly effect” may occur, as discussed in complexity and chaos science. And yes, that is often the role of a change agent, whether internal or external, formal or informal. And, if I remember correctly, the name of the stranger bearing pepper plants was Ahmed. Thanks Tony for naming what spoke to you, and opening a new window of inquiry. Kris

  5. An interesting introspective on how “gardens” can flourish by allowing others to provide insight and experience to break out of our molds, or routines. It is not always easy for a company, especially one entrenched in bureaucracy and repetitive processes, to embrace change in the way of new technology and processes that differ from what they have done for years. Your article particular appeals to me as this is what we are doing with the government. The challenge, some technology has empowered employees to be more efficient while others has caused greater issues in terms of maintenance and support. Finding the balance is the opportunity for growth and influence.
    BTW, I hope you enjoyed your peppers.

  6. Thank you Wendy for the observation that change can bring benefits as well as challenges, and the trick is to balance. That is part of being a system, isn’t it… that one solution can have unintended consequences that need to be addressed or mitigated. The peppers are still growing, and I will enjoy them I am sure!

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