This is Part 7 in a series of interviews with the gurus of leadership and management theory.
Marshall Goldsmith is a researcher and executive coach. He was honoured in 2009 as one of the 15 most influential business thinkers in the world in a study by Forbes and The Times of London, and also named by The American Management Association as one of 50 great thinkers and leaders who have influenced the field of management. In this interview, he talks about the need for employees to monitor their own engagement with work, and for successful leaders to stop trying to win everything.
I gather you have some new ideas on employee engagement. What have you found?
I have been conducting research with my daughter Kelly, a marketing professor at the Kellogg School at Northwestern University. We have some fascinating research on the importance of asking active questions and teaching employees to engage themselves through those questions.
The idea came after I attended a conference of the National Academy of Human Resources, where I listened to a presentation by the heads of human resources at some major companies on employee engagement. They talked about what they were doing to engage employees and it all was good stuff – recognition, empowerment and training. But nobody was talking about what the employees could do to engage themselves. To me, the key variable of employee engagement is not the company but the employee.
To help with that, my daughter taught me a process called active questions. Historically, research on employee engagement by companies has involved asking employees passive questions, such as, “How engaged are you?” If you ask passive questions, you tend to get environmentally based answers, such as, “I am not engaged because my company is bad,” or “my boss is mean,” or, “I don’t get enough pay or recognition.”
We started asking active questions, such as, “Did you do your best to increase your own engagement, happiness or meaning?” We found consistently that the group we asked active questions self-reports being 50 per cent to 100 per cent more engaged than the group we ask passive questions.
So how should I employ this idea as a manager in a department, not controlling the company’s overall engagement program, but wanting to take advantage of your finding?
This is something you can do yourself. It’s not complicated. Part of our approach is based on The Checklist Manifesto by Dr. Atul Gawande of Harvard Medical School. That gave me the idea of asking daily questions on engagement to keep focused.
So, as a manager, I keep this checklist of questions I want to ask employees and when I see someone I ask the questions?
There are two sides to this: You and the employee. For you, perhaps on a daily basis, introduce the discipline of evaluating how happy you were that day and how meaningful things were. Did you increase your own meaning, happiness or engagement today?
For employees, only try it with employees who want to take part. For those who don’t care, don’t waste your time. But for those interested, it’s a wonderful process they can undertake themselves – asking those questions.
The daily checklist on engagement forces you to pay attention. In many hospitals, for example, a checklist of questions reminds doctors to wash their hands. Dr. Gawande confesses he can’t remember if he washed his hands five minutes ago in some cases. Similarly, on engagement, he asks: How many days do we forget to be happy? How many days do we forget people we love? How many days do we forget to be engaged because we are lost in a sea of e-mails? The answer is: too many days.
We have completed research with seven companies. The results have been amazing.
In What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, you mention some of our bad habits that keep us from rising at work. Can you single out some of the major ones that cause problems?
The first one is winning too much. If it’s important, we want to win. If it’s meaningful, we want to win. If it’s critical, we want to win. But if it’s trivial, we also want to win. And if it’s not worth it, we want to win anyway. Winners – and successful people are winners – have an insatiable need to win.