Workplace Gardening: Leading Marigolds, Weeds, and Walnut Trees

Talent management experts often compare companies to complex, living organisms. Green thumb or not, most individuals can understand that in order to grow, a seed must find a home in solid soil, be watered regularly, and be nurtured. They must adapt and weather storms and defend themselves against predators. With enough care and devotion, those plants will flourish and become an important part of a colorful, diverse garden.

Continuing with the garden metaphor, I find the Marigold Effect is a powerful way to illustrate the impact each individual has on the organization’s culture. In “Find Your Marigold,” Jennifer Gonzalez explains that experienced gardeners often use a technique called companion gardening. Instead of planting a field of only one kind of plant, they think strategically about the placement of plants that support one another’s development. For example, marigolds are often planted near vegetables because they repel bugs, prevent fungal diseases, and discourage weeds from spreading nearby. They create a protective and supportive environment which enables nearby vegetables to survive. They make everything around them stronger and healthier.

In the workplace, marigolds are givers. They never ask, “what’s in it for me?” Instead, the marigold always puts the garden’s needs ahead of its own. Workplace marigolds bring out the best in others. They are the first to lend a helpful ear, provide words of encouragement, volunteer, or join a brainstorm. When the environment becomes volatile and uncertain, the marigolds will take care of those around them by protecting them from negative thoughts and frivolous worrying.

For gardeners and leaders alike, marigolds are priceless. While they protect and support others, they are hearty and need very little nurturing of their own. And, much like A-players in an organization, marigolds attract other marigolds. As they grow and become stronger as a group, they spread to edge out any leftover space for weeds. Weeds, while not necessarily harmful, provide no value. Organizational weeds are the employees who exist only to meet basic expectations and collect a paycheck. Sadly, weeds are far more common than marigolds and must be constantly monitored/pulled. Weeds are a nuisance and take up space, but for the most part, they lack the power to inflict harm on others.

Walnut trees, however, are another story. Walnut trees are toxic. They will destroy most of the surrounding plants, and poison them with damaging substances. In the workplace, walnut trees drain everyone’s energy. They are negative, calculating, and divisive as they stand in the way of any positive change or progress. They thrive on office politics and spread gossip like wildfire making everyone around them miserable. The most dangerous thing about walnut trees is that they don’t always appear toxic. To the causal observer, a walnut tree still produces walnuts, and therefore has value. While the walnut tree produces visible results, it’s the invisible toxic nature of the organism that makes the most impact.

Leaders often spend most of their time managing the weeds. They either spin their wheels trying to keep up with weed pulling or they mistakenly believe they can nurture the weed to bloom into a flower. Far too little attention is given to the marigolds and walnut trees. Take a fresh look at your organizational garden and make sure you’re watering and pruning in all the right places.