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Posted: September 05, 2013

Chef Laura: The geranium effect

The value of setting an example

Laura Cook Newman

Last year, I moved to a new home and was blessed with nice neighbors who lived in a not-so-nice house.  Robert Frost knew that “Good fences make good neighbors," so I had one built – just in case.

They were happy, I was happy, and that should be the end of the story.

But the fence I had built was kind of spectacular.  The kind of craftsmanship that makes random pedestrians say “Nice fence!” when I’m out in the yard. 

A month later, I heard some banging next door.  I couldn’t see the source of the noise – thanks, Fencey – but I knew something was up.  My neighbor proudly summons me over to see the commotion.  With his chest puffed up, he showed me that construction had begun on his house to spiff up the exterior.

I was shocked.  All this time, I assumed he was vying for first place in the “Sanford & Son Salvage” look-alike contest. 

“You know what inspired me?” he asked, smiling, “Your fence.”

This summer, he put in a new above ground pool.  In secrecy, his wife excitedly told me, “I’ve been asking him to fix the pool for years.  It’s all because of your fence!”

Keeping up with the Joneses isn’t new. You hear about it in the ‘burbs all the time.  Even in dilapidated urban settings, cleaning up graffiti and planting flowers has a wonderfully contagious effect.  My psychology professor called this phenomenon The Geranium Effect: a tiny red blossom in a window box can spark a chain reaction of betterment throughout the neighborhood.

The same would be true at work.  No, I’m not suggesting you install planter boxes in your cubicle.  People, not plants, can be The Geranium Effect

Recently, I was sharing best boss stories with a colleague.  Coincidentally, we both recalled bosses from our impressionable teen years.  While I wore checked pants and an apron, his uniform consisted of Speedos and zinc oxide.  This tells you three things: it was summer, it was the mid 1980’s, and he was a lifeguard.

Every day, the lifeguard staff had a list of maintenance duties to complete, in addition to working on their tans – I mean – saving lives.  The tasks ranged from slightly unsanitary (cleaning out the lockers) to downright disgusting (removing tangled hair, and Lord knows what else, from the pool filters).  

Like a fantasy football draft, the staff picked their job du jour at the end of each day.  The order of the lineup was based on seniority, so the head lifeguard got first pick.  Everyone assumed Boss Man would select “fluff n’ fold the towels” or something equally cushy, but instead he happily volunteered to clean those funky filters.  

What did the next guy pick?  Laundry duty?  Nope – he chose gag-inducing Hubba Bubba removal.  And so on down the list.

That boss created The Geranium Effect with his positive and unspoken peer-pressure to do the right thing.  It rippled down the chain of command. 

So whether you intend to create positive change by rolling up your sleeves and getting dirty, or it’s just a happy byproduct of putting up a pretty fence, people notice.  Set the right example and you can enjoy blooming geraniums year-round.

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at

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Readers Respond

I looked up The Broken Windows Theory and was impressed how impactful it is on a city's ability to reduce crime - more than adding government funded programs and education. There was also a piece about city planners incorprating "green space" in communities and how it affects residents "happiness" level. Just imagine if this was happening on the job everyday? Employee morale and engagement would be through the roof. You'd love going to work everyday! Thanks for sharing. By Chef Laura on 2013 09 09
Excellent piece! Tangentially related to "The Broken Windows Theory" espoused by Rudy Giuliani and his police commissioner Bill Bratton. By Pater Familias on 2013 09 05
As Chef Laura points out, the geranium effect can be executed in so many situations and on so many levels. It needn't always be showy. Sometimes it's the subtle and unexpected touch that stimulates better outcomes. By Minerva on 2013 09 05
The thing about this effect is that it is equally effective when used in parenting. My kids always respond better when they see dad walking the walk, instead of just talking the talk. By rc on 2013 09 05
My only quibble with your observation is that this geranium effect is more pronounced when done by the boss. I always prefer working for people who lead from the front. They work harder than others and when they call someone out, you knew they can and do better than the person who they are calling out. By Good advice on 2013 09 05
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