Interview

Why Are So Many Unwilling to Say What They Think, Feel, and Act On?

Jim Haudan, Chairman at Root Inc., shares that the best definition of leadership he's ever heard is, “What is it that you want to create that does not now exist for which you’re willing to endure personal sacrifice to bring it to life?”

Bill Fox
Nov 15, 2021
8 min read

Table of Contents


Jim Haudan: Chairman and Cofounder, Root Inc. Jim is the author of the books Blind Spots and The Art of Engagement.


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How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?

Jim Haudan: I think it’s interesting because we are working on another book and one of the constructs of the book is that it has been almost 30 years since Gallup started measuring engagement in the workplace. For the last 30 years, we have continued to see that 70% of the workplace is not engaged. What that means is almost 70% of all the human talent in all the organizations around the world are either scared, guarded, or unwilling to say what they really think and feel and act on every day.

The human talent is not showing up to innovate, change, and create better ways.

The question that is puzzling is that in those same 30 years, there have been major social issues like cancer deaths and traffic fatalities that have had significant improvements but nothing on engagement. You almost step back for a second and ask, “What gives?” I think what we’re landing on is that there may be some leadership beliefs that at the very core are dysfunctional to creating workplaces where people are bringing the best version of themselves.

Now the question becomes, “What are those beliefs?” To some extent, how do we begin to create new beliefs as leaders on the role of people in how they come to the workplace? How do we set the environment for our people to make it a place where they do their best work? Not whether they show up with all the right skills and tools.

There was an interesting story I read recently, and it was about the last regrets of the dying. It was about hospice care in Australia. The number one regret was, “I wish I would have lived the life that I was authentically meant to lead rather than the one that I thought others wanted me to lead.” We often jokingly say, “No one ever says ‘I wished I had spent more time at the office’ on their deathbed,” but I think there’s no reason why you shouldn’t say that. I think when we get to this whole issue, the concept of what you say on your deathbed is this: If you live an authentic and integrated life, then what you create at work ought to be as personal and prideful as what you do with your family and the ones you most love.

An interesting thing is millennials are going to force this to happen. They want an integrated life, not a personal and a professional life. All that suggests, what do we have to do to create that type of environment? I think we must challenge and change.

The first thing we should do is begin to see our people as creators and not implementers.

I think way too many times, we see our people as the implementation troops that are going to implement the decisions made by the smart few leaders. What this suggests is that even if it’s well-intentioned, it’s wrong-headed. How do we see not that we need to convince our people how to do a better job, but how do we introduce them to the drama of our business, the challenge of our cause, or the adversity of our nonprofit? How do we ask them to step into it with a new leadership belief that they can create a response to those challenges, dramas, and adversity better than what we could ever tell them? And if you lead that way, then suddenly you begin to create an environment where you’re not trying to control or cajole people or pep rally the team to buy in, but you’re trying to share the most intimate challenges we face and ask people what they can do to step up to those problems or opportunities. That’s a big issue. It’s a mindset. It’s a belief. It’s a way to run a business.

We had several clients that have watched their people go through some challenges in their business, and many leaders have said, “I’m just dumbfounded by the untapped intelligence of our people.” They’ve gone on to say:

We spent the last ten years trying to teach employees how to do a better job assuming it would improve the business, but we never shared anything about the adventure we’re on or the business that we’re trying to build and win.

I think those things are a good place to start. I see this not as a business challenge, but a social cause. Whether it’s an inconvenient truth in the environment in the United States, or whether it’s Waiting for Superman and the absolutely horrible state of our public schools, especially in our urban areas. Or even the fact that most of our people are disengaged, not fulfilled, or feel unhappy about what they do every day. It’s a social issue, not just a business issue. My gosh, why do we continue to accept that 70% of our people sleepwalk through their work-life?

One other thing is there’s another belief and mindset we must change. I think the mindset we must change is how we view the relationship between leaders and their people. As leaders, I believe we must see our people as customers. We must see people as customers of our strategy and of our direction and coconspirators in what we want to create that doesn’t exist.

The best definition of leadership I’ve ever heard is, “What is it that you want to create that does not now exist for which you’re willing to endure personal sacrifice to bring it to life?” I think we got it right in looking at what we do for our customers. We look for insights. We look for ideas. We look for a voice to translate into new products and services. This is all good.

However, we then just presume that our people jump in. We have no ability to try to understand what they see, what they’re curious about, what they get, and what they don’t get. If we want them to be fully engaged, we need to begin to think about them as customers for what we’re creating or the movement we want to create rather than assume they should “just go do it.”

The metaphor that I’ve always been fond of is one of the orchestra conductors. Years ago, we had a chance to interview several conductors before we developed a performance management tool. What we found was that the very best conductors—when the orchestra didn’t play well—always asked, “What am I doing not to conduct well?” The first, second, third, and fourth thing they asked was about their conducting and not about the individual player or the sections not harmonizing with the other sections. That was always their approach. I think in many cases, what we find is that leaders are saying that our people don’t get or they don’t have any lightbulbs on in there, or they’re not capable of understanding—all of which is false. The question is that the conductor just hasn’t found a way to truly see them—the players of the orchestra—as talented customers of what we want to do together. We need to try to better understand how to unleash their ability to play at a higher level.

What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?

Jim: In my book, The Art of Engagement, I talk about the four roots of engagement. I think it’s a powerful metaphor regarding how to get people’s best performance. The number one point is a purpose. You must engage with somebody in an organization on why we are doing it and what we do. The first root of engagement is that we all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. The goal is not to find yourself; it’s to lose yourself in a cause you believe in or a problem that’s defied a solution or join an organization that you believe is on a path to finding a better way. I think the most important point is to be part of something bigger than yourself.

The second point that I increasingly feel particularly strong about is to have a sense of being valued. In times of change, we face uncertainty and uncertainty can make a sense of being valued very fragile. I think many times people are questioning whether they’re valued. If you don’t feel valued, you’ll spend all your time trying to justify it for yourself rather than creating it with others. And so, the absence of that sense of value or even the presumption that you should feel valued, I don’t think is adequate. There’s a great African word, ubuntu, which means “I see you, and you are valued.” I think that’s important. Maslow talks about a sense of belonging, and this is probably in that same family. But when we look at change, there are so many people that think that just because they have not done this before that they’re on a “can’t do it” list and they’re just waiting to be told that. I think that’s the natural part of the fear of being a beginner again after you’ve had success or when stepping into the discomfort of the unknown. It’s important to truly have a sense of value and be valuable to the future.

The third point is about a story. I jokingly say that most of us with our kids or grandkids don’t say, “Can I take you upstairs and show you my PowerPoint?” We tell them we want to tell them a story. I think people want to go on a meaningful adventure. They want to be the coauthors of a great story or adventure. The story gets framed by asking questions like: What is it we want to go after? What capabilities do we want to test? What is it that we think we can do to have a breakthrough? What is the size of the prize here? The drama or story is in most of our companies, but we sterilize it. We compartmentalize it. Nobody cares about business-speak PowerPoints. What they care about is, “Can we do something together we couldn’t do alone that matters?” I think that’s the third point—it’s to go on an adventure that matters.

And the last factor is—and I can’t tell you how many times we work on this one too—to see how what you do impacts the lives of another human being. We’ve become so specialized and fragmentized in what we do and how it comes together and then where it ends up. It’s hard for people to see how what they do impacts the life of another human being. They tend to see it only as a task.

I’ll tell you a quick story about working with a Big Pharma company out of Europe. They had their top 400 leaders at a conference, and they were all very seasoned—they had “alligator skin.” They knew everything, yet they thought there was some benefit in bringing people together. They did a team-building event where they had 40 tables and put a bicycle on each table to assemble. They had done it before, but this time they added a little wrinkle to it. When they were done making the bicycle, they had 40 disadvantaged kids come to each one of the tables. They were going to allow 10 minutes for it. The kids began to interact with these leaders and tell them about their lives and what the bike meant to them. It just shut the place down. Forty-five minutes later, they had to call a timeout because they became so captivated by the connection of the bike they just made to the kid they just met, their story, and what it meant to that child at this stage in his/her life. It was a telltale sign of how we go through the motions and don’t take the time to realize—in this case, a drug company’s leader’s impact on a child by providing a bike. Just think what’s possible if they better understood how their drugs positively impacted the lives of patients?

Note: This is a preview of the full interview. The complete interview was selected by Apress for publication and continues in The Future of the Workplace.

thefutureoftheworkplacebook.com

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