On the front page of the Oct. 12, 1972, edition of the Winfield Daily Courier, a photo shows three men conferring in front of a tractor. Dee Lewis, John Story and Clarence Long are getting ready to finish planting wheat. The work crew includes six other local farmers. Dinner is provided by two of their wives, and about 90 acres have been seeded in roughly six hours.
The farm? It is the Grandview Ranch, located just outside of the small Kansas town of Winfield and owned by Hazel and Milton Kroth.
I have a picture of that front page on the door to my office. Why? Because these neighbors were planting that wheat out of the goodness of their hearts for my grandmother - and out of respect for my grandfather, who had died unexpectedly the Sunday before. Because it reminds me of the power of relationships, of the goodness of people, and of the importance of small acts of kindness. Because it tells me that people will go above and beyond what they have to do just because they care - and not just for money. Because I can imagine how my grandmother felt when her husband was ripped out of her life and immediately facing her was a task that must have seemed impossible to accomplish.
And then I can imagine how she felt when people showed up just to help her.
Paul Harvey, talking about farmers in that recent Super Bowl TV ad, caused many of us to choke up. It's not hard to see why.
There is a paradox at play in some work environments, embodied in the phrase "do more with less." I have often contemplated what that really means. What, in particular, does the "less" mean? I think most of the time its intended meaning is fewer resources, which is understandable. We are going through challenging times.
But it could also mean with less respect or less care or less understanding. It is when "less" signals to employees that they are just cogs in a machine, or resources to be deployed, or numbers on a spread sheet, that "less" really means less productivity, because all too often people then work only because they have to and not because they want to. When people have to do something, they are less likely to do any more than they, well, have to. The creativity, ingenuity, synergy, commitment and effort that managers want they never really get to see.
Young men working for my grandfather on a hot, sweaty, harvest day in Kansas would look down and find a ripe, juicy watermelon he had planted for them long before, anticipating their needs before they even knew they would be working for him. My dad, remembering, said that he and the others got so much of the sticky, sweet juice over them that they had to go jump in the creek to get clean. My grandfather had the kind of insight into what keeps young people working by imagining their experience long before it occurred and then planning for it. Yes, my Grandpa Milton understood and cared for people.
What would it take in your organization to motivate people to go above and beyond the call of duty? What would it take to get your own "wheat planted and harvested" when times are tough?
My suggestion: Study human nature and human beings. Show them that you care about them. Search for what really motivates them, deep down inside. And don't forget to plant watermelons long before they're needed.
Michael Kroth, associate professor of adult/organization learning and leadership in Boise. firstname.lastname@example.org