It's what you don't see that really matters

When you walk in the woods, what do you see? 

You’re probably thinking this is a silly question, right? Of course, you see trees, leaves, plants on the ground. Soil. The stream that runs through there. Birds. So many birds. And the occasional squirrel or deer maybe. 

If you’re a savvy nature hiker, you might even know some or all of the different tree species you see. You might notice that different species grow in different places. 

But what about what you don’t see? The systems, large and small, that are the lifeblood of the forest. The movement of nutrients from soil to leaf, energy from sun to soil. The relationship between squirrels and oaks. The symbiosis of vine and tree. The underground network of roots, fungus, mycelium, and untold microorganisms that make up a system of nutrient and information transport that we still have yet to fully understand. 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the parallels between natural systems and our “human systems” for lack of a better term. As Aldo Leopold helped us understand, the two are not mutually exclusive. But modern society tends to see them as such. Here is a parallel to the contrary. 

Let’s go back to those unseen systems. 

When you walk into a business, what do you see? Workers. Product. Transactions. Machines, displays, signage. Certainly, there are systems you can see on the surface. How an empty cup becomes your morning latte. How steel and other materials become backhoes. 

But what about what you don’t see? The plumbing and electrical systems that fill your cup with hot liquid. The people from some other part of the world that picked the coffee beans. The people that transported them from field to a network of distribution hubs via truck, ship, rail, then truck again, to get those beans to your favorite coffee shop. 

We call that infrastructure. 

Then there’s the uniquely human “systems” in place everywhere. The interactions between the workers on the production line. Their interactions with management. Management’s interactions with company leadership. Leadership’s decisions affecting whether a particular employee is motivated to show up on time, or to search for another job. Employee morale. Employer’s ability to recruit a workforce.

We call that organizational culture. I see it as the “ecosystem” in which our businesses, organizations, and even families exist. 

All around us are unseen systems that affect our everyday lives. When they go awry, some are easy to address. If a pipe breaks or an electrical breaker trips, the fix is obvious. But when employees are uninspired, unmotivated, and uncommunicative, the fix isn’t so clear (though sometimes it can be). Culture is a hard thing to define, let alone control. Yet in my opinion, culture is by far the most important component of any “system,” whether that be a workplace, an organization, or a family. 

I would contend that culture cannot be created any more than a forest can be created. Nor can poor cultures be improved quickly any more than an unhealthy forest can be saved in time for the next quarterly report. By the time a tree shows outward signs of poor health, it’s usually a manifestation of stressors it has experienced over the years before. And it will take time to fix, if it can be fixed at all.

You want to keep your oak forest healthy? Thin the stand and eliminate invasive species to start with. Don’t compact the soil over the roots. The remaining trees will have access to more nutrients and sunlight and will therefore grow bigger and healthier. 

What’s limiting production in our businesses and organizations? What’s keeping our families from thriving? That’s a little harder to say sometimes. But research repeatedly has shown that production targets or chore charts aren’t the fix to uninspired employees or apathetic tweens. Pay can be motivating, but only to a point. How many people do you know that took pay cuts to leave a job they hated? I know several.

We have to manage the habitat, the ecosystem. The unseen forces affecting our lives. Create an environment that puts the person first, that gives them the resources they need to thrive. Not just the financial resources either, but the social and emotional ones, too. This has proven over and over again to illicit far better results. 

When a workplace or a home feels supportive – like leadership “has your back” no matter what – that’s motivating. This will look different for everyone. For the new parent at work, maybe it’s a more flexible schedule. For the senior employee, maybe it’s the opportunity to mentor new recruits. For the socialite, maybe it’s the chance to plan the company social. 

At home, for my kids, it’s the opportunity to choose when to do something (autonomy) and to not be micromanaged along the way (mastery – the ability to try, fail, learn, and try again until its right). All while knowing it’s contributing to an overall cause (purpose), in this case a less-dysfunctional household. 

You can’t tell a tree how much to grow in a given amount of time. But you can create conditions to optimize its production. You can put it in good soil. You can plant other trees around it so it can network its roots and share resources and information with others. Stay focused on optimizing the conditions and the trees will create the forest. 

We humans aren’t so different.