Taking a few lessons from Nature about how to keep and engage employees.
Most organizations struggle with generating authentic employee engagement. There is an unlikely teacher, however, that can provide some interesting strategies on creating stronger engagement within any team, business, or otherwise. That teacher is nature.
Entities that are managed and led based on nature are considered “living systems” rather than objectified organizations. Living systems are much more agile, and respond to feedback much more rapidly. As a result, those working within these organizations often feel they have a stronger voice within the operation – which leads to stronger engagement.
The idea of creating a “living system” organization might seem overwhelming or too abstract of a goal. Yet most companies that reflect these types of values started with very small steps. And engagement is an excellent place to start.
When it comes to using nature’s principles as a model for business, here are four significant lessons that could help boost employee engagement:
ONE: Design the organization so engagement is essential.
Nature is designed from the start by the relationship between sunlight and photosynthesis. Sunlight is a free resource that sends energy to the earth. It only works, however, if there are leaves, algae, and grass that photosynthesize the energy of the sun into life-giving nutrients.
Nature is designed to require its own version of authentic engagement – photosynthesis – and it’s essential to all life on this planet. In much the same way, organizations must view engagement as an essential part of the operation. There must be a mechanism that synthesizes the interaction between employees and leadership, and engages them in a way that feels authentic, not contrived. When management and the entire workforce really, truly understand that engagement is essential, it becomes a vital part of organizational strategy.
TWO: Embrace the concept of self-organization.
Nature depends on self-organization in living systems to create effective and productive systems. Nature doesn’t mandate how a plant should grow, or when a tree should drop its leaves.
Self-organization works much the same way within a team or operation, and it’s a natural manifestation of engagement. Highly engaged employees can initiate and organize their own work while still aligning with the higher purpose of the organization. As a result, they feel not only engaged but empowered to make good decisions and to drive their own work forward without being told or asked to do things. If we want to invite self-organization into our own workplace, we need to develop and unleash self-organization, instead of valuing control.
THREE: Tap into the power of limits.
Nature taps into the power of limits. It only uses the exact amount of time it needs to accomplish things and in fact, there is no wasted effort in nature. Within an ecosystem, nature recognizes that there are limits to how soil, moisture and temperature affect plants and species.
Within the business world, however, we often waste employees’ valuable time and attention on inauthentic invitations to engage and participate in decisions. When we ask for feedback and don’t listen or act on their insights or recommendations, we teach employees that requests for engagement don’t really matter. Not only is this a waste of time, it diminishes trust in management when these types of requests are conducted in a less-than-authentic manner.
Along with only making authentic requests on employees’ time, we also need to remember that, as in nature, there is power in understanding limitations. We’re often constantly forcing ourselves to work past our limits, beyond our “edges” so to speak. There’s a significant cost to those types of demands in terms of demotivation and burnout. Learning to tap the power of limits means we can move to the edge but not past it, and avoid impacting performance negatively. Just like in nature, we want to put in just enough effort for optimal results, and that effort (or our requests as leaders) must be authentic.
FOUR: View the organization as a living system not an object.
Nature is a living system, but our organizations often are led from an objectification mindset. When we objectify our organizations there can only be one owner. From an employee’s perspective, that ownership usually lies within the leadership of the organization, not within its ranks. Employees that do not feel ownership or feel they have true voice are rarely engaged.
When we see connections as essential and build meaningful relationships within an organization, we can actively absorb and respond to feedback. When employees see that their feedback is being used to reshape decisions, change design (or even direction), they become more engaged. This is how a living system operates. If we lead from a framework that is living, not objectified, we lead differently and in a way that reinforces engagement.
These four lessons from nature can help us rethink engagement strategies within our organization. They help us find the answers to some very important questions:
Can we make engagement essential to every decision-making process?
Can we reward self-organization so that engagement becomes a daily behavior?
Can we design meaningful engagement processes that won’t waste people’s time?
Can we lead from a living system mindset that engages and empowers everyone within the organization?
Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (CLICK HERE to get your copy) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. She writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems at www.kathleenallen.net
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