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.
Welcome to our interview with Jim Haudan. Jim is CEO and Co-Founder at Root Inc., and Author of The Art of Engagement. Jim is a frequent speaker on leadership alignment, strategy execution, employee engagement, business transformation, change management, and accelerated learning; Jim has contributed to numerous industry publications.
Welcome Jim, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of the Exploring Forward-Thinking Workplace conversation.
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 are 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 on 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 death bed 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. I think 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 non-profit? 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 US, or whether it’s Waiting for Superman and the absolute 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 percent 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 have to see our people as customers. We have to see people as customers of our strategy and of our direction and co-conspirators 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 the one of the orchestra conductor. 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 it 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.
I don’t want to jump to what I’ve written in my book, but in the book, The Art of Engagement, there are 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 have to 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 joining 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, “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 “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 co-authors 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 break through? 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 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 impact’s 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 ten 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?
I think there are a lot of ways to answer this question. If I had to pick one, I’d say the thing that people most long for at work is the opportunity to tell the truth. The opportunity to be told the truth and the opportunity to feel free and safe, to tell the truth.
But what I think we find is that you can’t look at high-performance teams and change if you’re not willing to tell the truth. The reason truth telling becomes such a problem is because there are so many interpretations of truth that might condemn somebody, so we just avoid it. We avoid telling the truth. We avoid going after the conflict. We avoid going after the adversity. But when we begin to tell the truth, there’s something that happens first and foremost, and that is public vulnerability. And sometimes it’s shared public vulnerability. Once you get this shared public vulnerability, a lot of your fears go out the window. It’s amazing how things change when you start focusing on what we can do versus how do I make sure I don’t look bad. How do I make sure this doesn’t show poorly on me? Whether I’m the CEO or whether I’m just a guy running a machine, so what I think people long for is the opportunity to talk about what they truly think and feel.
I do an exercise with people where I say there are only three places where we tell the truth in our companies, and they are in the hallway, the bathroom, and the watercooler. Then I pretend I just came out of a meeting. I’m with a friend and we go to the bathroom, but before I say something, I bend over to see if there are any legs in the stall. Then everybody laughs because they’ve all done that. I ask why did you do that and they say, “We had to make sure it was safe, and nobody else was in there so we could say what we think.” I just pause for a second and say, “You’re kidding me.” How successful will we be if we can’t say what we think and feel and there’s not an environment that cherishes that getting the best, candid thoughts from our people versus what they think we want to hear or what is safe to say?
I think there are many ways to answer this question, but there’s one question that popped into my mind the most. If you look at high-performance executives, many times a high-performance executive is somebody who works on the business rather than in the business because you can get caught in all the minutiae. You’ve got to work at a higher altitude to figure out and ask yourself, “What are the constraints in our business, and if the constraints were removed, could we increase our performance?” Now, how do we remove those constraints?
In order to improve, you often have to simplify or remove constraints. But how often do we think about asking, how do I remove a constraint so my people can excel?
I think when it comes to our people, I would ask, “Of all that you can contribute to our organization, what percent of your capability do you think you get to contribute?” That question would be tremendously interesting to me because whenever we ask that question, it’s a minority of what they think they can do.
Then I would ask the following question, “What are the constraints that are holding you back from contributing even more?” Then I’d be listening like crazy to what is holding them back. Then I’d start focusing on what’s holding people back and what can we do to remove those constraints.
Here is a controversial idea – I think it’s time to stop measuring engagement in our organizations. It’s become a tremendous disservice to all of us. The reason for that is because the tools have become the goal. In too many organizations, leaders are tied to engagement numbers. The employees know if they don’t get good numbers, something is going to happen. We’ve taught all the people how to play the game, just give us a nine or ten.
I was very engaged in the Baldridge quality effort back in the late 80s. If you go back and look at the Baldrige Award, which was the US Quality Award, Florida Power & Light won the award, and then the year after that they won it they disbanded it and stopped doing it. The tool became the goal. They became so adamant about the tool that they forgot that the tool was just there to help us run and drive a powerful business.
I think we’re there with employee engagement, and I believe we should stop measuring our people and start measuring our leaders. I believe we should ask leaders to measure themselves and ask people to measure them on the four Cs of: Care, Curiosity, Constraint Removal, and Collaboration. If we start asking about these four behaviors, we’re going to get to build great “people workplaces”!
I think there’s a reciprocal nature to this question. When leaders appeal to people’s highest level of thinking, they get the highest response. I think as employees, partners or associates, we all have to be more curious about the business we work in rather than just the job we have.
You mentioned in an earlier conversation about our book the story of the Cleveland Indians. If you go to a baseball game in the US or a cricket game in the UK, there’s everybody of every age from 4 to 94. For the most part, all of them understand how this game gets played. They understand how to keep score; understand the drivers to success; understand when one thing happens how to respond in a different way; and understand the difficulty of getting to a victory. They also understand the sorrow of not winning. But all together, they understand how it all works.
I think in many cases, we have people that have not become as curious about the great game of business, or the great game of non-profit, or the great game of public service. They’re not trying to see the big picture of how this all comes together and what each of us can do to win. The corollary—at least in the US because I don’t think there’s one globally but I could be wrong—the US economy lost $12B last year from people playing fantasy football and baseball on work time. What that means is that we’ve got all kinds of people setting up teams, looking at responses, changing players, coming up with strategies, seeing what the results are, and trying to reposition their place in the standings. They’re playing strategy every day, just not ours.
I think the challenge as an employee is to say, “I have to be more curious about how this business works.” What are the drivers of success? How from where I sit and live can I contribute or detract from that? How I can be a force to make enlightened decisions with my head, hands and heart? Because if I get it, and I get how this all comes together and where it’s headed, I can make a much greater contribution and be more highly engaged.
My first choice would be that I think we’re all born with the capability of being creators, so we ought to ask ourselves, “What is it we want to be part of creating that doesn’t exist that we’re passionate about?”
I think that’s a pretty important question. When I ask people this question, they get excited if they have a picture of what that is. If they don’t, there’s a real pause and blank look on their face. I think this is a question all of us can ask from wherever we sit in an organization.
When it comes to leaders, I think the question we might want to ask is a simpler one, and that is, “How do we help people discover the heroic capabilities within themselves?” And when they do, they realize they’re smarter than they thought, more capable then they ever gave themselves credit for, and more valuable to our future then anyone’s ever told them. I think as you begin to awaken people to that, you begin to realize incredible possibilities and great things can happen. Clearly the goal is to “awaken the sleeping giant” of human capability and passion in all of our organizations.
We have a new book that’s coming out, but it doesn’t have a title yet. The current “un-working title” because we don’t want it to be the title, is The Five Dysfunctional Beliefs of Leadership that Perpetuate Disengagement. We’re finding some of those beliefs are around issues that involve our beliefs about why people work. The book is being written by Rich Berens, president of Root, and myself.
In leadership, there’s way too much belief that people work for the rewards even though there’s so much research that doesn’t confirm that. When we look at all the places where incentives and awards are used, we sit there and say we’re just kind of dumbfounded at how much is missed there.
And I also think close to that belief, is the belief that purpose doesn’t drive profit. We’ve got books on firms of endearment that connect profit and purpose, but I can’t tell you how many companies we work with where it’s almost as if they have two beakers. One beaker has all the business stuff in it and another beaker has the purpose stuff, but they’re separate. However, we need them both, so we cover all the needs of our people.
The fact of the matter is, that belief is costing a lot regarding both outcomes and contributions from the people. The one belief I think is so fascinating to me is this and that is the belief that human variability has to be limited so that we have common standards, common brands, and common experiences for customers. I think that one is probably the most significant one because even some of the leaders I work with that are some of the best leaders, are addressing this.
Cheryl Bachelder, the CEO at Popeye’s here in the US, who wrote the book Dare to Serve, is all about servant leadership. Popeye’s is trying to build leaders in all the restaurants they create. She’s a fabulous leader. But the question becomes, “How do we create a framework for the standards that are key?” And how do we invite the freedom where human variability is the difference maker?
I can’t tell you how many times we stamp out variability versus encouraging it. There’s a client we have in the hotel industry that addresses this head on. They believe the world needs more friendly, authentic, caring and thoughtful experiences, so all their people are asked to do that whether you’re funny, witty, compassionate, or your empathetic, it doesn’t matter. They found a way for a framework and freedom to work together versus stamping out the freedom, so they have consistent standards.
Or we need to have all freedom, which is chaos. I just don’t think we’ve found how to leverage the human element in our businesses, especially our bigger companies because we haven’t figured out what is it that’s common and what is it that is unique to the individual and how to invite them in.
There’s a great story that I remember. A policeman went into a Starbuck’s in the city of Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, and asked to use the bathroom, but the barista wouldn’t let him use it. So the policeman got upset and blogged about it. The next day Starbuck’s ran a full-page apology in the newspaper. In response, I wrote a blog asking, “What are they apologizing for?”
What they have said is that we don’t believe that our people can have a judgment, discretion or discernment at the point of engagement to the degree that they are capable of. Thus, we’ll create policies for all the anomalies or for all the things where we’ve been burnt on. I think that creates all kinds of inauthenticity in all our organizations if we script it for our employees rather than call them to be part of it in a unique way we get canned, non-engaged responses.
I think that’s a big piece of this belief and that is that human variability needs to conform to our standards versus invited to the uniqueness of that person. Nobody has a good framework or answer for that other than the one hotel I just mentioned. But I think that’s key to the future of tapping human capability in all our people.
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