In Nature, Waste is Never Wasted
When Kathy Allen* first introduced this principle to me, my heart lit up. I recognized in it the wisdom of my agrarian roots, and was surprised to see how those roots were making a difference in my work.
My parents were “children of the depression” who raised 10 kids on a small acreage outside of Omaha, Nebraska. They grew up in an era when people were producers more than consumers. They grew their own food, made their own clothes, and invented their own fun. They put things to good use as a matter of principle and necessity. Minimizing waste is something they did well.
That ethic transferred into how they raised us kids. In grade school, I
re-used brown paper lunch bags until they were torn. My mom put patches on my blue jeans, made from remnant materials of my siblings’ old denim clothes. My dad maintained the farm with recycling inventiveness: an old broom became the handle of a hand-pushed garden tool, coffee cans held screws and bolts, the cow shed became a workshop after the barn burned down.
Today, those who love small-scale farming might think we were at the cutting-edge of cool. Back then, I bet people just thought we were poor. But Kathy gave me a third interpretation: we were acting like Nature!
Toward the end of my childhood, a county landfill was developed across the street from our home place. Make no mistake, landfills are places where waste IS wasted. When I visit, it still makes me upset to see how we have collectively become so un-Nature-like. We buy, surround ourselves with, and then discard useless things with aloofness. It creates a huge pile that covers square miles of Earth…and that’s just trash from Omaha! Books like Cradle to Cradle, which imagines a circular economy where re-use is planned into the initial design of products, give me hope. But even that doesn’t address the fact that we seem conditioned to think wastefully.
This mindset leaks into the workplace, where the potential of the human spirit is sorrowfully wasted. Unhealthy workplaces are like landfills of knowledge, wisdom, good-will, energy, and talent. According to Gallup, only 34% of workers are engaged at work and 13% are “actively disengaged.” Some employers treat their workers like cogs in a machine, expecting them to spin faster and faster. Others are so full of office politics that it’s risky to be curious, inventive, and ask tough questions. In still others, controlling organizational cultures make employees anxious and ashamed. It’s understandable that so many good, effective people resort to self-protection that inevitably leads to disengagement and burn out.
This can change. Typically, we are discouraged from bringing our humanness to work. Things like half-baked ideas, uncertainties, hopes, dreams, and personal challenges are seen as a waste of time. Instead, workplaces can recognize these as the very nutrients from which we grow as people. When we grow as people, we’re able to bring more capacity to our work. Presumed wastes become catalysts for motivation, insight, and improvement.
A few simple things can foster workplaces where human potential is valued and put to good use. When I was an employee, people often commented about how I was different to work with. It was just little stuff. Taking time to listen and caring about people. Prioritizing connection and being vulnerable. Speaking frankly about dysfunctional power plays. At Blue Dot Consulting, I help clients systematize this interpersonal approach into organizational practices that build culture. Examples include designing meetings to create purposeful connection and convening retreats focused on reflection and adaptation. It’s amazing how a little intentionally-unstructured time can improve relationships and create space for both small improvements and big “a-ha” moments.
My beloved former boss Bernadine Joselyn was a master at unleashing these human resources when I was on her team at the Blandin Foundation. Doing the task at hand became more authentic, creative, fun...and productive. Otherwise-wasted resources like inter-personal connection, empathetic understanding, and a desire to see others succeed created a sense of “we’ve got each other’s back and we can do this!” It had a tremendous impact on quality, loyalty, and self-motivation at work.
And so I offer up this closing:
May we see the sparkling human potential in the eyes of those we work with, and in turn, reveal ours with warmth and humility.
*This blog is the second in a series about Nature’s Design Principles as I learned them from Kathy Allen, author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons. I hope these writings foster more thinking and acting like Nature, so we might shift the tide of personal, communal, and environmental harm that undermines life on the Blue Dot.