Don: [00:00:00] I’m Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions and author of the book Thrive by Design. I speak across North America on the neuroscience of engagement at work. I’m passionate about helping leaders at every level to create engaging workplace environments where employees feel safe, recognized, and validated. Employees who feel safe at work are happier, healthier, and more productive. Each week my team and I take on topics impacting managers and offer solutions to your biggest workplace challenges. This is the Thrive by Design podcast.
Laurie: [00:00:41] Welcome to Thrive by Design, the podcast. We created this show to give managers, CEOs, and leaders the tips, strategies, and tools you need to create an engaged culture at work. For the past few episodes we’ve discussed the importance of engagement surveys in the workplace and the bell curve of engagement.
[00:01:02] I’m Laurie Nappi, and today we have a full house. I’m here with Kelly Burns and Don Rheem. Today we’re breaking down the key leadership dimensions that influence engagement.
[00:01:15] Good morning, Don and Kelly.
Kelly: [00:01:16] Good morning to both of you.
Don: [00:01:18] Hi Laurie. Hi Kelly. Great to be here.
Laurie: [00:01:21] Thank you. Let’s begin by taking a look at our leadership dimensions and why they’re valuable to understanding engagement.
Don: [00:01:34] One of things we’re trying to do is to take our data from the 28 questions and make it as informative as possible to CEOs and managers within an organization. We’ve talked about the bell curve in the past, about how we use the data to determine how engaged an employee is. We also use the 28 questions to get a sense of how well leaders are delivering on what we consider to be three key dimensions of leadership. One of them is focus. Another is capability. And the third is around the mindset of employees, the attitude that they bring to the work that they do.
Kelly: [00:02:10] Focus, capability and mindset. Those are three leadership dimensions. Laurie, I’m curious if you could start by talking about focus. What is the focus category and how do we measure it?
Laurie: [00:02:22] The focus category includes six of our 28 survey questions and it highlights employees clarity around expectations, their immediate tasks, their understanding of the mission and vision of the organization, and their individual role in facilitating the organization’s success. Don, help us understand the neuroscience behind focus.
Don: [00:02:48] One of things we know about employees, is that when they feel safe at work they perform better and at a higher level. The focus area is interesting. It’s safety around clarity. Do I know what I’m supposed to be doing? Do I have clarity on what’s expected of me? Do I have clarity on what my role is in the larger organization? Do I have clarity on the mission and vision of the organization? It’s a really simple question that you can ask – any manager can ask. If an employee has this, do they feel more safe or less safe at work? When employees have more clarity, they feel safer at work. They are more able to do the work without threat of doing something wrong, with less, in a sense, latent or unconscious fear.
Kelly: [00:03:35] Focus, at a high level when you think about it organization-wide, gives employees clarity around where the organization is going where and how their role individually contributes to the organization. How does it work when you’re thinking about it from a more drilled down level? My day to day work that I do – how that impacts the team, how it impacts my manager, and how I’m going to be assessed in my performance.
Don: [00:04:00] If we step back and we we look at the data on these, because we give a score – an absolute numerical score – for each one of these three leadership dimensions. When we aggregate the scores across the whole organization, we’re looking at a focus score, a capability score, and a mindset score, for the culture as a whole. What we’re looking for there – number one we want is highest scores possible. Higher scores obviously are better.
[00:04:25] But number two, we’re looking for symmetry, balance, between those three. When we drop it down to the managerial level – let’s say now I’m not looking at the company’s numbers, I’m looking at the numbers of one of the managers. Here it’s more granular. This is where we also see more variance between the scores. One of things we’ve discovered is that one of the areas where managers are most likely to be successful is in telling people what to do. Often the Focus score for a manager, even a not so great manager overall, their Focus score can be pretty decent. That is, they’re doing a good job of letting people know what they’re supposed to do. But then we might see lower scores, especially around Mindset. You can get really big differentials between a Focus score, which tends to be high for a mediocre manager, and their Mindset score which is going to be very low.
Kelly: [00:05:18] When an employee is struggling with Focus but they may have strong scores in the other categories – Mindset and Capability – they would have the capability to do the job. They would have the right mindset to do the job. But they may not know exactly what they need to be doing – when and why they need to be executing. So that Focus sounds like it’s a really critical part of their engagement.
Don: [00:05:41] Yes. An employee could come to work highly engaged. “I love working here. I love the people I work with. I love our mission and vision. What am I supposed to do today? What what does my manager consider to be successful behavior?” Over time, that’s going to corrode their engagement because what they can do – and we’ve seen this happen – employees will pursue something with a lot of engagement, vigor, commitment, energy, productivity – only to discover once it’s done that it’s not what the manager wanted or expected.
[00:06:11] We have this misalignment between how a manager views success and what the employees actually done. An employee who is fully committed, could be an A player, could spend a week, a month, or more working on something only to find out that it’s not what was wanted. Of course then they don’t get validation and recognition for the level of effort they just get penalized.
Kelly: [00:06:31] Which probably makes their feedback sessions or their performance reviews really scary, because they walk in and they’re not really sure. They may feel extraordinarily validated for their attitude, the behavior that they show up with. But if they’re not really sure that they’re doing exactly what they need to do to drive the team and the organization forward, that could cause a lot of anxiety in those performance meetings.
Don: [00:06:54] Yes, and the anxiety trends in the brain coded as threat. That’s what anxiety is. It’s actually the outcome of the brain feeling threat. The resulting emotion is one of a feeling anxiety or anxious. Imagine what this is like, we’ve talked about in a previous podcast about how the primary nutrient of an A player – of an actively engaged employee – is attention and validation for what it is that they do. Imagine the high performing player that goes out, does the job. They give it their all. They perform like an A player, but then because they weren’t working in the right direction, they had misaligned expectations. They’re not going to get any of that validation they had hoped they might get as a result of their level of effort. It’s very corrosive.
Laurie: [00:07:43] Don, what do leaders need to do to increase their Focus score?
Don: [00:07:49] One thing they need to share more. We had one employee in one of the open ended questions say, “I think my manager views information like money, because she’s hoarding it.” One of these we want managers to do is simply to share more information. Several employees have said this numerous times in surveys. They say, “My manager is in meetings every day, but we never know what they’re about. We have no clue what my manager is doing.” I did a debrief of a survey recently for a construction company. In this company, one whole division were people that were drivers of cement trucks – just delivering cement out to big projects. And the owners of the company were very surprised to hear the drivers of these trucks asking for more information about the company. “How are we doing? We have other business units in other cities and locations – how are they doing?” Employees today want to know more about the organization than ever before. I want managers to share more information. Let employees know. Don’t assume they don’t care. Let them see the bigger picture more frequently and give them more information. The more information we have, in general, the safer we feel.
Kelly: [00:09:06] Let’s move on to the Capability dimension. I’m curious, Laurie, what the Capability dimensions is all about, how we measure it, what we’re looking for.
Laurie: [00:09:15] Of our 28 questions, seven of our questions are in the Capability category. These questions determine if employees feel that they have the right skills, tools, processes, and resources to perform well at their job so they can be successful. Don, tell us more about that.
[00:09:36] I like this category. Where we’re looking at resources, tools, and training. Let me give you an example of some of the questions. Of the 28 questions we ask, what are some of the ones that we ask in this category. “My immediate co-workers and I worked well together as a team.” Now that’s interesting. Why is that in the category? That’s not like training or resources. If we don’t work together as a team, I’m not capable, we’re not capable, of producing as much as we could. We want to know if someone feels that their peers are operating at the same level that they do because we know they’ll perform better.
[00:10:14] Another question in this category: “My team members pride themselves on doing top notch work.” This is always interesting, because when the score is low on this one, it typically is reflecting an employee who wants to do a good job, is trying to do a good job, but they have other people on the team that aren’t working as hard. That misalignment of effort is also corrosive.
[00:10:37] Just one more question. This is one of the more straightforward ones. “I have everything I need to do my job well.” Employees simply have to have the right tools. They can be very engaged, want to do it, have lots of clarity of focus, and have the right mindset, but they don’t literally have the tools to do the work. Over time, that is going to diminish their levels of engagement. The question employees ask is “why don’t they give me the equipment to do this right? Why am I working with equipment that doesn’t allow me to perform at my best?” We want to know if that’s one of the issues. And then another very straightforward one. I am given the right amount of training to improve my skills. So.
Kelly: [00:11:15] It sounds like if they have clear focus, a high Focus dimension where they know what they need to be doing, you have a high Mindset score where they feel invested in doing it. And they’re missing Capability, then they’d like to do the job, they want to do the job, they know what they want to do and should do. But they’re literally not able to because they’re missing that capability piece. At a macro level that can be really hard. If an entire organization isn’t investing in the right resources to provide employees with the capability, then a manager is going to have a hard time at a micro level creating a high Capability score. How do we help senior leadership teams understand how to increase Capability? And if an entire organization is providing those kinds of resources, but not information, those training opportunities, whatever it is, aren’t trickling down to the manager level and down to the team – the frontlines people – how do we help managers understand how to increase Capability and a team based level?
Don: [00:12:15] At the team based level, this has happened several times. The employee says, “The company has great training programs, but my manager won’t let me attend.” There’s literally managers that will not release an employee from their their day-to-day job to go get this training. That’s a problem. Managers need to be investing in their teams. This is especially true for Millennials and Gen Z, anyone below 34 years of age. They know the pace of change in business and technology. If you’re not constantly learning and upgrading your skills, you could literally be out-skilled and out of the market and as little as just two or three years.
Kelly: [00:12:55] I will say, that while that might be a desire of Gen Z and Millennials, it might be more true of those that don’t come from a digital native background. Our older workers might need to be encouraged to attend more trainings. They may not have the same desire to do so – they may, I’m generalizing – but they certainly have the need to keep up with the technology trends that might be easier for our younger generations.
Don: [00:13:22] Yes, and it’s actually very helpful to have mixed generations in training so that the Gen X and the Boomers can see themselves learning and understanding things just as easily as Millennials do. There’s no magic to this. There’s no secret to it. It’s just about commitment and desire to learn it. We want to be investing in people at all age cohorts. We want managers to identify what training employees on their team want and need. They could do this directly, they could do it anonymously. A manager could go to Survey Gizmo, open a free account, and send a url to their team members asking them three or four questions about training. What do they need? How would they use it at work? Get some information. If you don’t ask, you may never know. Just the the act of asking, indicates that it matters to that manager. Then if the manager can’t provide those things for the team they just simply need to explain why. “We don’t have the budget now.” Or “we’re going to try to, let’s see if there are other ways to do this.” When employees don’t feel a manager is investing in them, and their professional and personal development, engagement declines.
Kelly: [00:14:31] The way you just described understanding what training to go for shows me a really strong linkage between the Capability leadership dimension and the Focus leadership dimension. Make sure that the clarity of focus and understanding the goals of the organization and the team are aligned with the kinds of things that they need to be trained in – the kinds of resources they need to be provided with. In addition to keeping in mind that some employees really want to be challenged in new ways. They may be expanded outside of their role, so how do you balance helping employees be trained and and given resources around Capability that fall into their purview, and helping them grow and expand their capabilities into new areas that might keep them engaged and retained at the organization?
Don: [00:15:18] It is a challenge for managers when they want to train their people but their people just aren’t that interested. That’s rugged. In a case like that in a very high level, you want to link the need for training to the sustainability of the company and staying current. You don’t want to be the next Kodak and double down on film when the world’s going digital. You want to reference continuous improvement and the need for that. That’s not something employees would typically disagree with. Yes we want to encourage training, make it a part of the culture, and the need for it.
[00:15:53] One area that I have seen that’s underestimated in its value is cross training. This isn’t simply about giving people new skills that are outside of the organization or on the horizon. But let’s cross train people to give them new skills across the team and even across other teams. This really helps, especially in smaller organizations of under 200 or 300 people. When someone goes on vacation or maternity leave, the positions in jobs and functions don’t don’t just come to a halt. We now have other people that can step in and do that work in the interim. That can be very valuable to an organization.
Kelly: [00:16:32] Especially important when turnover is at an all time high and we’re struggling to retain our employees. If we’re losing them and there was nobody who knew how to do their job, you’re stopping.
Don: [00:16:44] You’re at a dead end. Interesting, when you talk about turnover we recently hit a new record on the number of employees quitting. In the month of August, 3.8 Million employees quit their jobs. “I’ve had it. I’m done. I’m out of here.” And they’re not all jumping on the unemployment rolls. They’re going to other places that are doing a better job of providing a compelling reason to come to work. “Here’s what you need to do. Here’s all the tools you need to do it.” That’s what they’re looking for. When an organization doesn’t provide the tools, employees go, “Why am I knocking myself out? Why am I working harder to do the right thing when the company themselves don’t provide the tools to demonstrate excellence?”.
Laurie: [00:17:25] Capability is one of the leadership dimensions that’s pretty easy to improve on. You ask your employees what they need, help them out, give them the resources and the tools. It’s not just limited to training, it’s the right equipment, it’s the right tools. It’s the right computer. It’s the right furniture, it’s the right environment that they need.
Don: [00:17:46] As I mentioned earlier, it even includes “do we get good cooperation from other teams?” I was in organization recently where their Capability score was really low. It was in a particular department – in the accounting department. When it came to this question, “Do I have what I need to do my job well?” It was a really low score. It turned out, it wasn’t about technology or software in the accounting department. It said they weren’t getting the numbers that they needed from other parts of the organization so they could deliver their reports on time and on schedule. The issue about cooperation with other teams is really important to people having the capacity to do their work at a high level.
Kelly: [00:18:27] You mentioned just a minute ago that we are now at an all time high in terms of turnover in the American economy. I think one of the major impacts of turnover, falls into our Mindset dimension. Our last, and it maybe our most critical dimension. I’m curious if you could dig in a little bit on what Mindset is and then talk about its impact.
Laurie: [00:18:50] Our mindset category has the most questions. That’s 15 of our 28 questions. These questions determine if employees have trusted relationships with their colleagues and supervisors. If they feel inspired, recognized, validated for their everyday contributions to work. Don, can you unpack Mindset for us?
Don: [00:19:13] In context of the other two, you can have lots of clarity, great focus, you can have all the tools in the world. But what if you come to work and your desire to to use those things at your full capacity just isn’t there. I think everybody understands what that is, where someone is underperforming – not because of lack of the resources and clarity – but simply because they just don’t have the desire to do it. This is why we have 15 questions in the category. It’s the signature of our survey frankly. We ask more of these questions than anybody else does, because we know that these are key drivers of behavior. We want to know, for example, did they feel trusted by their supervisor. Do they trust the supervisor? We want to know if their opinions count or are they consulted on on issues that directly affect their work? These are issues that drive our day to day behavior and the attitude, the mindset, that we bring to the work.
Laurie: [00:20:05] And fairness in the workplace.
Don: [00:20:08] We added two fairness questions about a year and a half ago because we just continue to see in the research how important fairness is. If employees don’t feel they’re in a fair and equitable culture, an environment, that’s coded by the brain as threat.
Kelly: [00:20:26] Laurie, you mentioned just a minute ago that Capability is a pretty simple one for managers to be able to increase. Figure out what resources and tools they need and provide it for them. Budget for it, plan for it. Focus might be a more simple one as well. Have the senior leadership team make their mission, vision, strategy, and direction more clear.
[00:20:47] But Mindset really takes a bit more intentionality. It’s a bit more effort, more day to day impact in the way they show up. In the way they have one on one meetings, in the way they interact with their team members. Why is Mindset so critical for the organization? And why is it often our lowest score that we see in organizations?
Don: [00:21:15] The easiest thing to do as a leader, as you just alluded to, is to provide Focus and Capability. The real heavy lifting of truly extraordinary leaders are the ones that excel in this Mindset category. Everyone has read a lot about emotional intelligence and that’s a part of this category. We’re really talking about emotional intelligence. Very applied and practical in a workplace environment, which is why we ask these questions. Employees come to work everyday with discretionary effort. “Do I have the attitude the desire to work at a level that’s closer to my full capacity?”.
[00:21:54] That’s the heart of these 15 questions. What creates the desire for people to over perform and outperform? These are the key issues. Why? Because we are hardwired at birth as herd animals. We’re hardwired to have safe and secure connections with it with other human beings. As one brilliant neuroscientist the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Dr. James Coan has said, the dominant ecology for human beings is other human beings. We are hardwired to have these safe and secure connections, attachments, relationships if you will. What we’re looking for is a culture that’s not just transactional. You’re hourly, your utilization rates, your billable hours. You did this. You’ve done Lean. You’ve done Six Sigma, which is all great. But you can have an organization that’s done Six Sigma and Lean, and still no one wants to go there, because it feels cold, it’s empty, it’s not relational.
[00:22:47] Part of what we’re looking for here is “Is this a transactional culture or is this a relational culture?” A culture where relationships are encouraged and formed, because when we talk about the emotional velcro between an employee and a company this is where it occurs for the majority of employees. Let me give you a quick example. I was with a construction company on the West Coast, and the CEO told me, “Don, one of the key reasons you’re here and we’ve brought you in is we’re building a project on the south side of the street. A competitor’s building a project on the north side of the street. How do I keep my employees from walking across the street for 25 cents an hour more?” Which they do. The answer is the only way to keep someone from walking across the street for 25 cents an hour more is to have emotional velcro between that person and the company, the team, the job. You need to create these hooks and loops that hold people. It’s in this category -Mindset – where it’s going to happen. That’s why it’s so important we ask 15 questions.
Kelly: [00:23:48] I was having a conversation recently with a store manager and this was a very common conversation that we have all the time. The manager was complaining about employees and how difficult it is to work with them and it just it feels emotionally exhausting and unnecessary at times to do to “deal” with people. And when we said, “Well, that’s that’s your job as the leader.” And they said, “No, my job is to run the store.” That mentality is really where we are lacking that Mindset piece completely. What are the implications when a manager says, “no, my job is to run the store, not to deal with the people.” What are the implications of that in terms of their bottom line? In terms of how effective they are not only as leaders or managers, but also how effective they are as business people?
Don: [00:24:36] It says something about how the manager was trained. It’s also a very unsophisticated view of what a manager is. You can’t run a store without people, your employees, operating at a high level – creating positive experiences for the customers that come in. If your employees can’t create positive experiences for people coming in, they won’t. If it’s just a transaction, I’ll stay at home and buy this on the Internet. We want to have this relational culture.
[00:25:02] Let me give you an example. We have several clients that are banks and I had a wonderful opportunity to speak directly to all the employees of a bank in the Midwest – a chain of banks. I asked them, because there were a lot of tellers in the room. And I said, “When these customers come into your bank, why are they coming in? Because we know they don’t need to do the transactions anymore. It can all be done over the phone, by computer.” One of them raised their hand right away. I said “why are they coming in?” And they said, “because they need someone to talk to.” And the fact is that teller may be the only person that customer interacts with that day. But the reason they got up, got dressed, got in their car, brought a single check to deposit, and walked it into the bank is for relational reasons. Because we are herd animals. We’re social animals and we need connection with others. If a manager doesn’t understand that part of their role in that store is to is to connect with the employees and inspire them, motivate them, show them how to create this positive customer experience, they’re not they’re not running the store. That’s not leadership.
Kelly: [00:26:13] They may open and close on time. They may have their accounting done well. But they’re not truly helping their employees or their customers thriving and develop that emotional velcro that will make them successful for the long term.
Don: [00:26:25] Yeah, I can see that manager. Inventory is totally finished. The shelves are stocked. Everything is done. The windows are clean. There’s tape in the registers. Then they think, “OK I’m done.” No. That’s the shell. Now, where’s the soul?
Kelly: [00:26:40] Right.As we wrap up this podcast for today, is there any key takeaway – especially as we think about the critical nature that Mindset plays in engagement in a workplace?
Don: [00:26:52] Mindset, to me, is the most important factor. It’s also the hardest factor to do right, because it requires the highest levels of exemplary behavior of a leader. I mean it takes a leader who’s dedicated to doing these things to get these scores high. When we see managers who have low engagement scores, they almost always have a low Mindset score.
[00:27:14] So of the three leadership dimensions, it may be the one that’s the most pivotal in whether or not a manager is getting great scores, average, or below average scores.
Kelly: [00:27:27] Such an interesting conversation. Thanks to both of you for joining us today.
Don: [00:27:31] That was great. Enjoyed it.
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