One of my favorite movies is Being There. It is a story about a mildly disabled man named Chance, played by Peter Sellers, and is set in Washington, D.C. The movie opens with Chance all alone in a lovely Georgetown townhouse. We quickly learn that he had been living there his whole life and his benefactor had just died and Chance has to leave. He packs a suitcase and walks out onto the streets of D.C.Being There

Uneducated, all Chance knows is what he learned from television and taking care of his benefactor’s small garden. Within minutes of leaving, he is bumped by a car driven by Shirley MacLaine, a wife of one of Washington’s most wealthy and powerful men. Stricken with guilt, MacLaine takes Chance, whom she calls “Chauncey,” home to recover.

Because Chauncey knows little about the world, when people ask him questions, his answers always have gardening undertones. People start to think he is a great philosopher and scholar. Chauncey rises through the ranks of Washington’s elite to the point where he begins advising the President on economic policy. And he inspired the President with this gem, “The economy is like a garden. If you want it to grow it needs sunshine, water, and lots of care.”

As I thought about a number of recent articles I have read and all the gardens emerging around us, I began waxing philosophical. Like Chauncey, leaders are gardeners, too. We know we need a healthy culture (soil) to grow our business; we need to select quality people (plant selection); we need to provide basic nourishment (water/sun); we need to remove people that hinder growth (weeds /parasites); and we need to celebrate (enjoy the flowers, vegetables, fruits.)

Preparing the Soil – The Culture. If we want our organization to thrive, we better have healthy soil – a culture with rich nutrient values and standards.

Patty McCord was an early leader at Netflix and worked with founder Reed Hoffman to build a healthy and innovative culture that only hired and retained “fully formed adults” (I love this phrase.) In his insightful article, legal writer, Kenneth Grady, described how Netflix has nine core values and uses these values to decide who comes, who gets promoted, and who goes. Team member assessments are based on how each person contributes to these nine organizational values:

  • Judgment
  • Communication
  • Impact
  • Curiosity
  • Innovation
  • Courage
  • Passion
  • Honesty
  • Selflessness
Dorie Train (800x600)

Garden of Dorrie and Don Upton in NH

Like plants, having team members who contribute more to the nutrient value of the culture (garden) than they extract, makes the culture (garden) more healthy and sustainable.

Selecting the Right Plants – The Interview.  Your culture (garden) will succeed and flourish if you select the right people (plants). When selecting people it starts with the interview and one clever technique for selecting quality people was shared by Walt Bettinger, the CEO of Schwab.

As part of Bettinger’s hiring process he invites final candidates to a breakfast Interview. Before the candidate arrives Bettinger asks the waiter to bring the candidate the wrong order with completely different food (He promises to pay for the extra food and tips the waiter well.) Bettinger does this because he wants to see how the candidate interacts with and treats the waiter. It gives interesting insight into how people deal with adversity and how they treat others during adversity.

Bettinger also asks candidates, “Tell me about the greatest successes in your life?” He is looking to see if their story is solely about what they achieved or whether the story includes other people and their relationship to the success.

Selecting the right people helps keep the culture (garden) healthy and sustainable.

Providing Basic Nourishment. As we know for the culture (garden) to flourish it needs basic nourishment (sun and water). An effective leader (gardener) provides sunlight and encouragement. Notice how many more flowers bloom when the sun comes out? Notice how many weeds emerge when it is dark and overcast? Abusive bosses are like dark clouds.

In a research study from the University of Florida we discover that negative, abusive bosses increase weed-like employee behaviors. Here are four examples of how employees of negative bosses perform compared to non-negative bosses:

  • 30% slow down or make errors on purpose compared to 6%
  • 27% are likely to hide from their bosses compared to 4%
  • 33% do not put in maximum effort compared to 9%
  • 29% take sick time when they weren’t sick compared to 4%

Positive leader-gardeners nourish by setting clear outcomes, assuming positive things will happen, letting people do their jobs, showing appreciation, and weeding the garden.

Weeding the Garden – Get Rid of Toxins. If a leader-gardener wants to have a healthy culture (garden) they need to do the weeding and manage the spread of parasites – it is their responsibility. If they do not, we know what happens.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article called Hazard Warning: The Unacceptable Cost of Toxic Workers author Roberta Holland describes Dylan Minor’s research into the cost of maintaining toxic workers. Minor has calculated that a toxic worker actually costs the company $12,489 more per year than they add in value. By comparison a high performing employee adds a value of $5,303.

Minor has identified three characteristics of the typically toxic employee (weed) – they are self-regarding, overconfident, or a self-proclaimed rules follower. If you develop clever interview questions you can try to discover if any potential team members have these characteristics. Here are a few more thoughts about each characteristic.

Self-Regarding. Someone who is self-regarding values others less than him/herself. Think about what Bettinger taught us above in the breakfast interview section. Self-regarders are selfish not selfless. Minor says, “If you’re selfish, you’re more likely to steal and bully.” And the cost to your organization goes up and the other flowers in your garden get crowded out.

Overconfident. Someone who is overconfident is more likely to lie and cheat than other workers. One technique to get at overconfidence, and which I wrote about in a prior article, is to ask applicants how fast they can type – then give them a typing test. If they exaggerate their performance, there is a high correlation to overconfidence. Minor used the typing example in his research and says, “If you’re overconfident, you think you’re less likely to be caught. That’s very predictive of toxicity. The more overconfident you are, you’re much more likely to be toxic.”

Self-proclaimed Rules Follower. This last characteristic gets at honesty and whether someone will tell you the truth. Minor suggests using an interview question that, I should add, has been debated by organizations for years.  The question is “Should rules always be followed or sometimes broken to get the job done?” Minor believes the correct answer is that rules sometimes need to be broken to get the job done. One who answers it this way is more honest and forthright. Ones who say, “Always follow the rules” is telling you something s/he thinks you want to hear and may give you insight into a more Machiavellian applicant who is trying to “game the system.”

In cases where someone behaves in a toxic manner, it is the leader-gardener’s responsibly to pull the weed.

Enjoy the Garden. When the garden is flourishing leader-gardeners should remember to sit back and enjoy it. Celebrate its bounty and beauty with others – the flowers will know.