Monday, October 19, 2009

When stress is a good thing

Here in my part of New England it's time to take in the house plants that have been enjoying fresh air since last May. The last of these are my wife's beloved Christmas Cacti. Here in my part of New England it's time to take in the house plants that have been enjoying fresh air since last May. The last of these are my wife's beloved Christmas Cacti (known botanically as Schlumbergera or Zygocactu), a misleadingly named cultivar that in my house has a mind of its own--sending out gorgeous blossoms at random holidays throughout the year. When asked about this strange phenomena, a relative's husband, a renowned botanist (hint--he edited the famous Taylors Guide To series), just shrugs his shoulders saying "Enjoy."

The patriarch of these plants is directly descended from those of my wife's maternal ancestors and quite likely go back 150 years or more; so it holds a special place in her heart. She has moved this plant several times over the years and has happily shared cuttings with countless friends, relatives, and untold numbers of charity fair exhibitors where the cuttings are rooted to raise money.

But back to the strange blooming pattern, which has caused us to rename the plant "Holiday Cactus" as we have enjoyed the blooms on Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and Valentine's Day in addition to many Christmases. Right now we are being blessed by fabulous pink flowers on Halloween from one of the offspring and the patriarch is looking like it will grace us with color for Thanksgiving.

The botanist, grudgingly sharing inside information with a neophyte gardener, opines that the unscheduled blooming is a result of plant stress. And he should know because he has a unique talent for neglecting plants that can take it. Ours are pot bound, due to the size of the root ball and the spread of the branches, which dictates the size of container. I rarely repot them, preferring to cut away roots around the edges and feed in some fresh potting soil. However, once in a while major root surgery is called for, and this year was time for several of the plants, especially the patriarch.

Finding a pot with a proper diameter and depth capable of being hung in a window is an adventure when all the retail resources are converting to holiday decorations. But with the kindness of a nurseryman I obtained some used pots that were suitable for the job.

The patriarch took some severe pruning to get it to a size that accommodates its north-facing bow window location; as a result many new cuttings are being rooted or disbursed to share the wealth with friends.

This stress angle on the plants was running through my mind after reading a Newsweek article, an interview with management guru Richard Baird entitled "Don't Panic" that deals with holding onto talent in a downturn. The thrust in this recession has changed from typical hire/fire practices in the past to identifying where their real talent is while ensuring that the reductions sustain the company's image in the market. He defines these employees as "pivotal talent," those whose performance can have a significant impact on the company.

Addressing corporate loyalty, which he says is not dead but "redefined," Baird cites the networking ability of today's employees that allows them to form a full picture of where they stand in the company and in their employment universe. He claims these hip employees are more interested in self-development and work fulfillment than compensation, positing that unless their developmental needs are being met it's "so long, its been good working for you," as they move to better situations after the recovery.

I found missing in this abbreviated interview of a longer session, the question of stress on those remaining after downsizing has occurred. Stress, in my view, does not cause the remaining workforce to bloom bright as it does with the Holiday Cactus. Having witnessed several of these downsize actions during my career as a consultant, at companies claiming that "employees are our greatest asset," I can say that the remaining talent is usually shaken to its roots and considerable time and effort needs to be made after the return to recovery to get the team back functioning at pre-cut back levels.

In his "don’t panic" approach Baird counsels remaining employees to be productive and outspoken in their sharing of ideas. Since this is an employee prerequisite regardless of the economy, I found this a trite comment. If this leads to stress relief I have yet to see it pay-off. Yes things will get better and this latest economic reversal will become an historical footnote. But I offer a thought; the last recession of this depth created a culture change known as "children of the depression" spawning a generation of workers cautious in their spending and wary of excess. Will future economists coin a term for the actions of those young workers who recover from this current situation?

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