The Manager As Gardener

I once worked with a company that had a   unique  way of dealing with people who were not producing in their job. Sometimes it was a lack of discipline; sometimes the person was a constant troublemaker; sometimes the skill needed to do the job just was not there.

The company’s  unique  way to deal with these situations was to create a faux department where these non-performers and troublemakers were placed. (Inside the company, the other members called the department “The Rubber Room!”) When placed in this “department” there was not any expectation these people would contribute much to the company. The company had a strong aversion to termination, so this department was the last stop as long as the person remained with the company.

Instead of trying further exercises of development, or instead of terminating the person when they had done all they could to help the person perform better, they gave these people a broom and some dust rags and told them their job was to “clean.” Interestingly, the company had a formal maintenance department that had the assigned responsibility for cleaning.

Think about the consequences of this. It not only cost the company money for which they got little return, but the individual humans involved were allowed to stagnate and never develop whatever potential they had.

Managing and developing the performance of direct reports is one of the principal responsibilities of a manager or supervisor. Yet, with the pressure of “getting the work done” on a daily basis, meeting other deadlines, extra work that comes along, and a myriad of other distracting issues, managing and developing direct reports often falls through the cracks. And no, we are not just talking about doing a performance appraisal once or twice a year. We are talking about on the job support and development on a regular basis throughout the year.

Think of a manager as a gardener with regard to the people he or she leads. The gardener prepares the soil, acquires and plants the seed, supports and nurtures the seedlings as they begin to grow, cultivates the plants, weeds the garden when it needs it, and finally is rewarded with the harvest of produce.

Preparing the Soil

It is not worthwhile to put significant time and effort in recruiting a new working member unless the work environment is positive to support the new member.

Questions to ask: What is the manager’s attitude about people? Does there seem to be good cooperation between the manager and working members already in the department? Do the working members feel supported and challenged to grow on an on-going basis? Is overall production in the department at a high level?


With the environment at the ready and clear expectations about what is sought in the new member, recruitment is really the effort of selecting the best prospect to be planted. In other words we don’t plant seeds for corn when we are really trying to raise beans. Questions to ask: Is the job description clear and are performance expectations explicit about outcomes? What are the skills and abilities that the new member should possess? Do we know the history of how this person has performed the necessary tasks of this kind of job in the past? Is it clear what kind of support this person will need to survive?


The gardener does not walk away once the planting is complete and hope everything will come out OK. This is a critical time and the manager as gardener realizes that despite all the other stuff requiring attention, the new plant needs support. Questions to ask: Are there frequent meetings early on with the new member to let him or her know how he or she is doing? Does the member have the tools and material available to do the job? Are the other members of the department available and willing to help the new member?


When the plant interacts with the soil, water and environment in order to grow, the gardener needs to intervene by cultivating. Is the soil loose so the new plant’s roots can grow? Is nourishment available through fertilizer? Does the new plant need the support of a stake or fence as it grows? Questions to ask: In addition to ongoing performance assessment, what dos the manager offer? Are regular coaching and mentoring part of the development process? What about formal training offerings the company may provide? Is there assessment of the person’s potential for the long term? What can be done additionally to cultivate this person so production is as full as possible?


A garden is always threatened by weeds. Removal of the weeds is necessary for the plant to thrive and grow. Questions to ask: Does the manager realize that by not weeding, the other members of the department are affected in their growth and productivity? Is the manager willing to terminate a member after sufficient coaching and support has been offered? Does the manager realize that if chronic poor performance or disciplinary problems are not tended to, the other members in the department begin to think “Why do I need to be disciplined or perform satisfactorily in my work?”


In the best of circumstances, the harvest may not yield the highest amount of “produce” possible in the garden. Nevertheless, experience shows that the overall productive garden requires constant attention to the details of the process outlined above. If the manager thinks and acts like the gardener, he or she will enjoy a productive work group. The productive work group will enjoy their work more because they know their manager cares about and supports their growth and development. It is a well planned interactive process that doesn’t just happen by chance.