Sunday, January 19, 2014

Are You More Like an Orchid or a Dandelion in Your Working Environment?

Why do some kids from really tough backgrounds manage to rise above the fray and survive while others wilt? Do these kids show up in the workplace as grown adults who manage the stresses well while others don’t?

Researchers Thomas Boyce (University of British Columbia) and Bruce Ellis (University of Arizona) coined an orchid-dandelion hypothesis based on the Swedish term “dandelion children”. Such children seem to be able to grow up in almost any environment unscathed. Boyce and Ellis added the term “orchid children” who blossom under good care but wilt when the environment lacks caring support.  Parental behaviour matters. Then, does organizational/leadership care matter? We know it does for everyone, yet for some it may be that which makes or breaks their motivation, engagement, happiness and overall productivity.

But hold on. The orchid kids might just have “heightened attention” to a new or ambiguous situation as Elaine Aron (State University of New York) posits. Their response might appear as “anxious inaction” when in fact they are “pausing to read cues and await opportunity.” It is somewhat akin to people who consider themselves “diverger” learners, generating options and taking a 360 view first. This “highly sensitive” response might be an evolutionary one from way back to our hunter-gatherer days when caution was a matter of life or death.

Steven Pinker (Harvard University) in his seminal book How the Mind Works points out that our minds are “designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life…understanding and out-maneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people”. He contends that we are not especially well-adapted yet to the modern world. We have “complex genetic recipes” that are working ever so slowly to adapt well in a non-hunter-gatherer world. The aim as always is to problem-solve through complex issues with survival as a key outcome!

Nevertheless, some of us, according to the orchid-dandelion view are more highly sensitive than others to the social environment and the stresses related to it. For example, we know that introverts easily become overloaded in social environments whereas extroverts generally thrive on the social stimuli.

Ernest Hartman from Tufts University prefers to characterize the differences as “boundaries” in the way we operate in the world. Some of us are thick-skinned, others thin-skinned. We “keep out” or “let in” stimuli according to our tolerance for handling the “energy of feelings”.  In his Boundary Questionnaire (BQ) Hartman has found that women score thinner than men. But if we look at this through an evolutionary lens, both are adaptive skills for survival.

In the workplace, therefore, we can conclude that both are strengths that only manifest if leaders and the infrastructure of the organization support the different tolerances for social stimuli. You can’t go wrong if you are a high emotionally intelligent leader. Walk in the shoes of others. Lend a helping hand. Unconditionally support. Take obstacles out of the way that impede getting the job done. Magical!