Chef Laura: The geranium effect

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.

Categories: Management & Leadership