Monthly Archives: December 2007

Why leaders should practice benign neglect

(and people) almost always work better when you stop messing with them.
All that probing and peering, opening things up and fiddling to try to
improve how they work, checking and supervising, absorb time and effort
that would be better spent on doing the job itself. If you want
results, focus on that and leave the rest alone.

My father was an expert gardener. His garden was the envy of the
neighbors, and the food he grew kept our family supplied with fruit and
vegetables year-round. People used to ask him if he spent all his time
in the garden. Of course, the answer was no. It wasn’t his actual
job, just a hobby. It wasn’t even his only hobby.

The secret of his success with plants was simple. He made sure the
soil was in good condition, he planted at the right time, he kept the
weeds and pests in check, and then he left the plants alone to get on
with growing, flowering, and producing crops.

“Neglect them a bit,” he used to tell me.
“Don’t be fussing around them all the time. Plants thrive
on benign neglect.”

A necessary lesson for today

Most organizations could learn something from my father. Instead of
fussing and fiddling with organizational structure, so-called
management techniques, and all manner of supposed incentives, they
could save themselves a good deal of time, money, and wasted effort if
they did just four simple things:

  • Provided civilized working conditions that gave people stability, a
    living wage, and the benefits needed to be able to concentrate on doing
    their jobs.
  • Made sure that everyone is given work appropriate to the current
    level of ability and experience; neither over-stretched nor kept in
    boring jobs that don’t challenge their capacity.
  • Acted to curb anything that interferes with time spent doing the
    job they are paid for. That includes needless meetings, today’s
    fetish of staying in contact 24/7, and demands to provide pointless
    information for people in the home office with nothing to do beyond
    compile statistics.
  • Let people get on with doing their work, making supervision minimal and limiting reporting to the essentials.

Good leaders practice benign neglect. It’s the idiots that
cause the problems, always fussing around their staff, probing and
peering and generally interfering with them doing their jobs.
They’re like children who plant a few seeds and want to dig them
up the next day to see if they’re growing. You can forgive
children, but adults should know better.

How to neglect people to best effect

Here are three simple ways for any leader to help people find success and develop themselves:

  • Make sure they have the right conditions — the authority, the
    resources, the training and clear direction, and the time needed
    — and then ignore them as much as possible while they get
    on with their work. It’s their job, not yours. If they’re
    busy, you don’t need to be. Neglect them a little. Do your own
    work and stop messing with theirs.
  • A major part of any leader’s work should be keeping down the
    weeds. Keep others away from interfering with your people’s work.
    Cut out unnecessary demands. Pull up useless meetings and slice off
    pointless reports. Weeds like that can choke any hope of good results.
    Be ruthless. Clear a space for your team to thrive and grow.
  • Give them the time and space to do their job and develop as they
    should — plus the knowledge that the organization will let them
    get on with it, unless they call for help.

Benign neglect works with people because it shows that you trust
them. It shows you believe in their commitment and ability. It proves
that you believe in their ability to deliver what’s needed
without being watched all the time and treated like small children.

Plants thrive on a bit of neglect. So do people. Try it.

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