Why leaders should practice benign neglect

Things (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´┐Ż€™t his actual job, just a hobby. It wasn´┐Ż€™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.

´┐Ż€œNeglect them a bit,´┐Ż€´┐Ż he used to tell me. ´┐Ż€œDon´┐Ż€™t be fussing around them all the time. Plants thrive on benign neglect.´┐Ż€´┐Ż

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´┐Ż€™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´┐Ż€™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´┐Ż€™s the idiots that cause the problems, always fussing around their staff, probing and peering and generally interfering with them doing their jobs. They´┐Ż€™re like children who plant a few seeds and want to dig them up the next day to see if they´┐Ż€™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´┐Ż€™s their job, not yours. If they´┐Ż€™re busy, you don´┐Ż€™t need to be. Neglect them a little. Do your own work and stop messing with theirs.
  • A major part of any leader´┐Ż€™s work should be keeping down the weeds. Keep others away from interfering with your people´┐Ż€™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´┐Ż€™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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