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The Lazy Gardener

This morning I spent nearly three hours digging out a Wisteria from my front garden. It was there when we moved in 5 years ago, hastily planted by the sellers to make the house look more appealing. “Wait”, I was told by people who knew more about plants than I do. “It takes a couple of years, but it will give you beautiful flowers.”

So, I waited. And every summer it sent green tendrils up and around and along the wrought iron fence. Slowly at first, and then like an evil, starving octopus grabbing at the other plants, reaching boldly out into thin air, slapping at passerby’s faces. We’d regularly trim back the “tentacles”, as we came to call them, but they quickly reappeared. Sometimes it seemed like I should be able to actually see the vines growing, they regenerated so fast.

“I’m going to give it one more year” I told my husband three years in a row, curtains of delicate purple flowers in mind. Meanwhile, the greenery seemed to grow more prolific and invasive each year, and the flowers never materialized.

As Spring finally arrived this year, I decided I’d had enough. What should have been incredibly obvious is that years of daintily trimming back above-ground growth had allowed the Wisteria to entrench under the soil. I started with a hand trowel, and quickly upgraded to a shovel and bolt cutters. Some of the roots were nearly as thick as my wrist, and stretched under the Lilac and other plants. I resorted to digging a trench around its base to expose and hack through the larger roots, and then stood on the shovel to lever the main part of the plant out of the ground.

Wisteria – 0

Jane  – 1

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Three hours alone with a shovel offers a lot of time to think, and I was pretty annoyed with myself by the end of it. Feeling too busy to deal with the root of a problem, and justifying a cosmetic fix in the futile hope it would pay off somehow are literally what I try to help people avoid as part of my job.

So much of the writing and speaking that I’ve done over the last year has been about the risks of ignoring or tolerating “low intensity” bad behaviour because of the propensity for it to spread and become embedded under the radar.

For lazy gardeners like me, there is always a perfectly rational reason to put off the messy excavation needed to properly address a problem, even as that problem grows to crowd out the rest of the nearby plants. Giving into that rationalization feeds a vicious cycle, because it makes it that much harder to solve and incentivizes continued procrastination.

The interviews and research I’ve been doing as part of my side project on sexual harassment (lots more to share soon!) has led me to consider how organizations typically address problematic behaviour (if they deal with it at all). Traditionally, most approaches focus on suppressing the behaviour identified as troublesome or undesirable. Rarely do organizations look beyond that behaviour to consider the conditions, incentives, or dynamics that made it more likely the behaviour would arise to begin with.

I’m still uncertain why this is. Do we underestimate the influence of these environmental factors on individual behaviour? Do we think a punitive, individual-focused approach is more effective, or at least morally satisfying? Or is it primarily a function of our discomfort with difficult conversations, and our desire to minimize them?

What I do know is that focusing exclusively on surface behaviour and “bad apples” instead of digging into the roots of behaviour patterns is a lazy gardener approach, and one that is more likely to leave us with a deep-rooted mess to clean up.

Recommended Reading and Other Stuff

Attend: DisruptHRYYC  – Calgary, May 9th, 2019

I’ll be speaking at DisruptHR in Calgary this week, delivering a talk titled “Beyond Bad Apples” (how about them ap- sorry, I’ll stop right there). I’m extra excited because it’s at the new Calgary Public Library which is soooo gorgeous. What can I say, I’m a huge library nerd and I hope this will be the first episode of the library tourism show I want to co-host with Rob Caswell. We all need dreams!!!

Read: Rotten Apples, Bad Barrels, and Stick Situations – An Evidence Review of Unethical Workplace Behaviour – CIPD

This excellent report from the CIPD and the Centre for Evidence-Based Management is packed with research and insights about unethical behaviour in organizations.

“Looking across these eight areas, it is clear that the causes of unethical behaviour are complex; there is no silver bullet that can eradicate such behaviour. But, by understanding these organisational, situational and individual-level factors, business can take evidence based action to mitigate them.

As experts in people and change, people professionals have a key role to play. Not only are they well placed to understand and shape workplace behaviour, policies and procedures, but also to role-model ethical decision-making in their own practice.”

Attend: Finding Wellness in the Workplace: Where Does Power Come In? – with Elizabeth Hunt. Toronto, May 8, 2019

I’m thrilled that we convinced Elizabeth Hunt to join us at this year’s Toronto Organizational Development Network Summer Social to deliver a participative workshop on power and wellness. If you are in Toronto, please join us!

WTF: Maybe we’re taking this “passion” thing a little too far…

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