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702: Building the Courage to Speak Up and Stand Out at Work with Jim Detert

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Jim Detert says: "Advocacy isn't just yelling my conclusion more loudly. It's helping people see why I came to that conclusion."

Jim Detert discusses how to build your courage to stand out and influence.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why acting courageously is easier than you think
  2. The four fears that keep us from acting courageously
  3. The most effective way to get others to listen to you

About Jim

Jim Detert (PhD, Harvard) is the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Detert’s research focuses on employee voice and other forms of workplace courage, experiential leadership development, and ethical decision-making and behavior. His research has won several academic best-paper awards, and his teaching and curriculum development have also won multiple awards at UVA and Cornell.

Resources Mentioned

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Jim Detert Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jim, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Jim Detert
It’s great to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to be chatting about courage at work. And I’d love to hear from you upfront, what was a time you really had to muster up some courage at work?

Jim Detert
Well, as a tenured professor, it’s actually kind of laughable perhaps to talk about courage at work. I have a real privilege of a type of job security most people don’t have. So, I would say, most of the times I’ve had to muster up courage at work in the spirit of challenging long-standing tradition. We’re pretty slow to change.

And so, when I was dean, for example, of our executive MBA program, I found myself repeatedly responding to statements that we can’t do something, with statements of, “By ‘I can’t do something’ do you mean it’s illegal or immoral, or simply that we haven’t done it in the past and prefer not to?” Those, frankly, are so numerous that I won’t bore listeners with all the specific examples of that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that is a nice helpful distinction to put front and center there. Cool. All right. Well, so that’s your personal experience. And how about your research, any particularly counterintuitive or surprising discoveries you’ve made about courage at work over your research career?

Jim Detert
Well, I think a few insights that have emerged that might seem counterintuitive, or at least they’re counter to the narrative. So, for example, I think we have a myth, in fact, I know we have a myth that courage is some kind of in-born trait or capacity that a few possess but most don’t. And having studied, literally, thousands of individual actors and acts of courage, I can tell you that there is no magic gene, there is no magic personality trait, background experience. People who step up and do the right thing at work, when they could and should, very tremendously in every dimension you and I can name. So, one sort of insight or sort of myth-busting for me has been it is not about a personal type. It is about a personal choice.

I think related to that is that people talk about courageous action as if these folks were sort of born ready or it was easy but, in fact, when you study folks, when they’re talking about John Lewis, for example, in the political realm or so many people I’ve studied in more regular kinds of workplaces, what you realize is that actually what looks like this natural confidence comes from hard work, years of practice, years of trying things, learning how to be more effective. So, that’s a second takeaway, is that this is like any skill. It’s developed through practice and commitment.

Maybe one insight or aha about the process itself is we think a lot about the moment when somebody speaks up or steps up. That’s the thing we remember and tend to pass on through narrative. But it turns out that what seems to make a difference in many cases for how those moments go is the preparation work and the things people do before those acts, and then, maybe most surprisingly, what they do after. So, skillful actors don’t just manage the moment well. They’re really good about after the fact, following up when things seem to have gone well, getting commitments, securing resources.

And when things didn’t go so well, they’re courageous enough to go have yet another difficult conversation, and say, “Hey, you look upset or angry or your body language suggests that you weren’t onboard. Can we talk about that?” And I think that follow-up is something we don’t think much at all about because we’re so focused on that big-bang moment itself.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing, yes. So, you’re right, in terms of as we just think about being courageous, like what comes to mind is exactly that, those moments of stepping up, saying something unpopular, or challenging the status quo in some way. And so, that’s a good thought in terms of there really is some private work going on either internally in their own brains or sort of afterwards one-on-one in the mix. Well, thanks for those. And maybe zooming out a bit, so your book Choosing Courage, what’s the central thesis here?

Jim Detert
The central thesis, I guess, going back to where we started, is really that courage is a personal choice and it’s a responsibility, and it helps to think not about courage as if it’s some sort of property. I often say, if you do an autopsy of somebody, you won’t find some stock of courage somewhere in the body. There is no such thing. So, it helps to think about courageous action.

And once you say it’s about whether you do something in those critical moments, you then can assume personal responsibility. And, in a sense, the thesis is that we don’t allow ourselves to say that any other virtue is just a responsibility of some, or that we should do some of the time. If you think about fairness or moderation or kindness, so many other principal or cardinal virtues, those aren’t just the responsibility of one of my ten coworkers, or myself, one of ten opportunities.

Pete Mockaitis
“I’m not really an honest person, Jim. You know that. I leave that to the other guys. They’re often honest. That’s good enough for me.”

Jim Detert
The question, right, is, “Why have we allowed that?” We wouldn’t say that about any of these other traits, these virtues, so why do we allow that in the realm of courage? Frankly, I think we let ourselves off the hook too frequently. And part of it is because we’re afraid, and so the book talks a lot about how to address fears, and part of it is because we’re not very skilled, and so we see so many screw ups in ourself and others when people do try to behave courageously, that we conclude, “It’s just too dangerous.”

And so, the book is fundamentally about saying, “Hey, you got to choose your moments, but then you have to be willing to take on some risks and you have to be willing to do the work to increase your competency.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so, Jim, it’s interesting, we’re talking about virtue, and I’m thinking about Aristotle and how the pursuit of the good life is good in and of itself, and brings about happiness and such. But just to get mercenary for a second, is it in professionals’ best interest to choose courage? Will that help them be more awesome and advance their jobs? Or is it better to play it safe? How do you think about that?

Jim Detert
So, I think there’s basically two answers to that question. First of all, it depends on your goals. If your goals are basically to just get ahead, potentially as quickly as possible, then, frankly, you and I know there are lots of organizations where the definition of being awesome at your job is keeping your head down, doing what you’re told, and just delivering. And in that regard, you could say choosing courage in the short run, not a great idea.

On the other hand, if you say, “I want to live of life where I felt I had agency, where I was authentic, I was true to myself, l lived my values,” then, hell, yeah, it’s the right choice to make. Another way to think about it is, “Over what time horizon?” So, if you’re talking about whether, “Choosing courage will necessarily put me in line first for the next promotion,” well, maybe, maybe not. But when you start to look at a longer-time horizon, like, “Will I be proud of the legacy I’m creating? Will others really remember me and want to stand with me? Will I have long-term regrets or not?” that’s when this choice is so critical.

If you look at the regret literature, for example, it’s pretty well-established that people, by a large margin, tend to regret inactions, things they think they should’ve done and didn’t than actions they took that didn’t go well. This is true even in people who suffer pretty big consequences – whistleblowers, for example. Almost none of them say they regret doing it.

So, what I would say to listeners is it depends. If you’re talking about how to be most popular or get ahead tomorrow, well, sticking your neck out is not always the best approach. If you’re talking about living what you or I or Aristotle or anybody else would call the good life, then I’d say, yeah, you got to choose courage sometimes.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d imagine, with sort of any measure of prudent risk-taking and say, “I’m going to take on this big project or responsibility or duty or opportunity where the outcome is uncertain,” I think that a level of that is essential for a career to advance, otherwise you don’t seem that special, it’s like, “Okay, you did your job within the realm of ordinary responsibilities. You didn’t deliver near really cool sort of noteworthy improvements, so.”

Jim Detert
Yeah. Okay, I would say if we’re really honest there, a few paths probably to eventually standing up. One, of course, is to be the absolutely best political player. Attach yourself to the most important people and play their game and you’ll get ahead to some degree. Now, for those of us who find that approach distasteful in a variety of ways, I think you’re right, you have to stand out eventually and with some consistency in other ways. And that’s where there’s such a difference between just being courageous and being competently courageous.

My book is titled Choosing Courage. It many respects, it should’ve been titled Choosing Competent Courage because, indeed, the route to success is not just speaking up or speaking out, pushing back against every possible thing you could in offensive language or with terrible emotional valence. It’s about doing those things in ways, to your point, to help you stand out positively. Because not just did you point out a problem, a path forward, a way to expand a market, a creative idea, but you did it in a way that those above you could hear, that they weren’t offended by. Because, at the end of the day, you can stand out in positive or negative ways. And what you’re referring to is how to stand out in positive ways, and that’s about skills when you behave courageously.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, we’re talking a lot about courage and standing up, standing out, taking risks, speaking up. Could you make it all the more real for us in terms of some examples of common places where courageous acts make all the difference at work, or where people often shy away? Kind of what specific kinds of moments are we talking about here?

Jim Detert
So, there are a few sorts of prototypical types of acts that if you sample thousands of people, as I have, say, 75% or more will say, “Yeah, unfortunately, these behaviors are moderately courageous or more.” The most obvious type of behavior, set of behaviors, are what I call truth to power behaviors. So, these are challenging your boss, or skip-level bosses. It could be about policies or practices. It could be about interpersonal behaviors that are offensive or hurtful. It could be about actually illegal or unethical things. It can be about going to bat for your own subordinates to people above you. So, lots of truth to power behaviors.

Somewhat surprising, going back to that conversation, I was surprised to the degree to which when I just asked people, “Tell me about a behavior at work that would be courageous,” I expected that everybody would say truth to power type behaviors. What I wasn’t prepared for was the frequency of people talking about how hard it was to have honest conversations with peers or even have honest conversations or give difficult feedback to subordinates. And the reason I think that was originally surprising to me is I was thinking primarily of risks in terms of economic or career consequences, “If it doesn’t go well, my promotion, my pay, my future here is at stake.”

It turns out, people have a few fundamental fears, and that’s only one of them. People are also highly afraid of social consequences. If you think about it, it makes sense. We’ve evolved in small clans, bands, tribes, and our daily tasks was survival. And if you got ostracized from your group, you were going to die, and you were going to die in short order. And so, it’s not illogical that even though that’s not our environment today, evolutionarily, we’re still programmed to be hugely afraid of being ostracized, to have social consequences.

We also hate psychological risks. We say, “Why don’t people step up and try a new task or take a new job or be more innovative?” The answer there is often they don’t want to look stupid. They don’t want to feel embarrassed. They don’t want to see self-doubt creep in. And so, there’s actually this huge range of behaviors that’s not just about challenging power. It’s about difficult interpersonal situations with peers, subordinates, external partners. It’s about being innovative.

I developed an index of the most common behaviors I heard about from thousands of people, and there’s 35 different behaviors. And many of them, you would probably say, “Gosh, for a professional or a manager, isn’t that just doing your job?” And I’d say, “Yeah, it is, but these things have been surprisingly infrequently.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I love this. So, categories of fears: economic risk, “Might lose my job or money or promotion”; social risk, “Folks will not like me, shun me, ostracize me”; psychological risk, “I might feel stupid or embarrassed if I screw this up and look real dumb.” Are those kinds of the three categories or are there some more there?

Jim Detert
Well, the fourth one, which is real in many contexts I didn’t mention, is physical. If you go back 2,000 years of courage-writing, the vast history of courage-writing was about military contexts. And sure enough, there are still, in military, firefighting, police work, plenty of other settings that come to mind, they’re so physical risks. And even, frankly, I was surprised the degree to which folks who work in any sort of service occupation – bartenders, waiters, customer service – actually report cases of being physically assaulted, accosted, threatened with a weapon, so there’s physical risks also that some people face.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And these 35 behaviors, can you tell us what sort of tops the list in terms of like one, two, three?

Jim Detert
So, in terms of level of courageousness, not surprisingly, those physical risks. So, jumping into the middle of imminent physical risks or harm is number one. What’s surprising, though, is that there are several other behaviors that are statistically no different in terms of how courageous they’re seen as being. These are things like being willing to challenge bosses or skip-level bosses about unethical or illegal behaviors, quitting a job on principle. There are actually several, more available to all of us, kinds of jobs that are actually seen as just as courageous as these physical risks.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. So, that’s the lay of the land. Now, Jim, tell us, if we think we want or need or should do something, and we feel scared about doing it, walk us through it, how do we go about choosing competent courage?

Jim Detert
So, let’s talk just briefly about what you would do before you would take that specific action, then sort of the moment itself, and then what you would do after. So, before. Some people say, “Hey, I’m not ready to take this specific act,” and I say, “That’s fine but you can still work on it every day.” And they say, “What does that mean?”

Well, what it means is the reception you’re going to get to that challenge you issue is, in part, based on the content of the issue. Is that a highly sensitive threatening issue to the boss? But it’s also going to depend on the impression that boss has already formed of you. Does that boss think you’re benevolent? In other words, is the reason you’re speaking up because you actually care about him and others in the organization, or is it because you’re self-interested and just trying to get ahead?

And the boss is also going to ask himself or herself, implicitly, “Hey, if I listen to Jim or Pete, and give them resources or take action they’re suggesting, are they competent, can they do it? Can they make good use of these resources?” And so, every day, we are creating in others, perceptions of whether we’re warm and competent, and that’s really sort of setting the stage, showing people we are fair, we’re emotionally intelligent, on a regular basis sets the stage. So, those things you can be doing every day.

Another thing is the question of, “Is this really the right issue? And is it really the right battle and the right time?” So, if you work in an organization, any organization I’ve ever studied, you could pick something to speak up about every single day but most of them are not truly important to you and don’t make a huge difference. And so, having the skill to sort of suss out what are critical to your core values and to your objectives, and which are sort of tertiary issues, that’s really important.

A woman I work with, Tawana Burnett at Facebook, African-American female leader, really a spectacular leader, and she’s one of the first 20 black females at Facebook, and she said, “Look, if I was going to speak up every single time somebody said something that was inappropriate or insensitive based on race or gender, I’d be doing it every day, but I also would quickly become ineffective because people would stop listening to me.”

And so, she said, “Look, my core value, my core objective is that we have to get more black females into leadership roles, senior leadership roles, because only then will things really change.” So, her rule is, “When things offend me, I ask myself, ‘Is this about the hiring, evaluation, or promotion of black females?’ And if it is, I speak up because we’re not going to get where we need to go if I don’t. If it’s about other things, I may choose to let it go.” So, it’s really about sort of choosing wisely.

Then there’s the moment itself. That’s about what you say, where you say it, how you say it, with what emotional tone, and I’ll give just one specific sort of general piece of advice here. All of us, when asked or when thinking about, like, “I’m going to go for it on this issue,” our first instinct is going to be to say the matter, present the issue, try to give the persuasive remarks from the perspective that’s compelling to us. After all, it’s our brain in which we’re concocting the story, the argument, the pitch, and so our tendency is going to be to frame it in a way that works for us. Often, that’s exactly wrong because if you already control the behavior of the other person or the resources the other person controls, you don’t need to do this anyway.

And so, imagine, for example, that I work for you or with you, and you are really compelled by things that affect us economically, that hit the bottom line, and you really are sensitive to threats or risks to our wellbeing or performance. So, you care about the money and you care about threats. But I come in pitching this great new idea to you, and I’m talking about how it fits with our values and it’s so culturally aligned with who we are, and how it’s such an opportunity, and that opportunity framing and cultural framing doesn’t resonate for you at all because I failed to mention the economic reality or the potential threats if we don’t do this.

And so, people have to remember that it’s the target’s ability to hear and respond well to what you’re saying that makes all the difference. And my book talks about lots and lots of specific strategies for achieving that, but the high-level concept is you got to speak to the target. And then as we started with, I mentioned the importance of following up, whether things have gone well and you’re securing additional resources or timelines, or whether they haven’t gone so well and you’re trying to mend fences, that’s really important, too.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, when it comes to the framing, I would like to hear some of the specific tidbits there. So, do you have some archetypes or categories of frames, so values, economic? Those sounded nice in terms of, yeah, those have very different flavors to them. Any others that come to mind?

Jim Detert
So, there are some other sort of broader frames. For example, I versus we, or sort of win-win versus win-loss. I think what we often fail to remember, we know this but we fail to remember it in the moment, is that when you’re telling somebody why they should do something differently, or you’re pitching your idea, part of what they’re hearing is, as the recipient is, “Oh, you’re saying I’m bad, or my idea or current practice is inferior,” or, “Oh, you want to do this,” or, “You look good and I look like a fool.” And so, framing that helps people understand, “I don’t want to replace or win at your expense. I want to take what you’ve done to the next level. I want to be the scout out front who then brings us all along together. I want to expand the pie for everyone.”

So, helping people be able to hear what you’re saying because they really think you’re on their side, and that you’re advancing excellence rather than beating something down in a win-loss, that’s a huge element of positive framing. And then, frankly, there are lots of just small things we inadvertently say. We can have sort of a beautiful set of data compiled and we can present evidence and solutions, and in just a couple small words, we can screw things up.

We often follow, for example, into the trap of naïve realism, which is simply this idea that there’s just one reality out there, and it just happens to be, “The one that I see. So, if you don’t see it my way, you’re dumb.” And when we unconsciously operate that way, we’ll say things like, “Well, since it’s so obvious that this is the case,” or, “Since this is so unambiguous,” “Since it’s so clear to everybody,” “Since it’s unquestionably the case.” Well, the effect of words like unambiguous, or so clear, or unquestionably, is essentially to say, “If you have any questions or doubts or see it any differently, you’re a dummy or you’re self-interested.”

So, learning to speak with less certainty, learning to avoid other certain phrases, I call them frequency words. My wife and I still joke, 25 years in, how often we would get distracted from the actual content of what one or the other of us were saying because the person who pointed something out would use the word never or always.

So, for example, if my wife wanted me to actually help with the dishes, she was actually quite correct if she would say, “You don’t help clean up as often as you could or should.” That was a correct statement. But if she would say to me, “You never help with the dishes,” the never would trigger me and I would get into a frequency argument with her, and say, “That’s not true,” and I would pull out my little notepad and say, “On Tuesday, July 30th, I actually put the pizza dishes in the…” And so, we would get derailed into an argument about never or always and away from the underlying issue itself around which she or I would be right.

Also, saying things, for example, like, “Don’t take it personal.” I would submit to listeners that we actually never use that phrase except in situations when we know at some level it’s personal. There’s no reason you would say that if that wasn’t the case. There’s the classic scene from You’ve Got Mail where Tom Hanks has got the big Fox Books store and he’s putting Meg Ryan’s little family independent bookstore out of business, and he says to her, “Why are you so mad at me? It’s not personal. It’s just business.” And, of course, she rightfully says, “What are you talking about? ‘It’s not personal?’ This is my family’s bookstore. This is nothing but personal.”

And so, I think avoiding phrases like, “It’s not personal.” And, listeners, if they want, can easily find a short piece on HBR.org that I wrote just a month or so ago on trap phrases and words to avoid in a conversation that speak to all of these kinds of examples.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love it when we get specific about precise words to avoid. Any words that you love, key things that find their way into a lot of great communications?

Jim Detert
So, if you go back to the great sort of master Chris Argyris, he talked about the idea of cognitive ladders of inference and advocacy and inquiry. And so, for listeners who haven’t heard of this, the basic idea was that most of the time we communicate at what Chris called the top of the ladder, our conclusion. I say, “Hey, Pete, we should do this and we should do it tomorrow.” That’s a conclusion. And Pete says, “That’s crazy. We should stick with what we got.” That’s a conclusion.

What we fail to do is get below those cognitive ladders of inference, that is what’s going on in our head. So, if I’m saying, “Hey, we should do this and we should do it tomorrow,” what I have done actually is I’m drawing on some data, like, “Hey, here’s data on what our competitors are doing. Here’s data internally on how our sales have decreased recently,” or, “Hey, here are some data on us losing some top talent because they’re bored.” And from that, I might reason, “We need to do something new and we need to do it in a way that catches the market’s attention, and, therefore, I reached that conclusion I said to you.”

And, similarly, you’re saying, “Hey, we should stick with it the way it is.” The thing is that you’re looking at other data. You may be looking and saying, “Nobody above me has said we have a problem yet. Most of the industry is still doing what we’re doing.” You might therefore reason, “I think things are fine. Jim is just antsy. They’re ballistic with what we’ve got.”

And so, the specific tool here is advocacy and inquiry. And advocacy isn’t just yelling my conclusion more loudly. It’s helping people see why I came to that conclusion. So, phrases like, “Can I share my data with you?” or, “Can I help you see my reasoning?” things that reveal your ladder, language that reveals your ladder. And then the most powerful thing are inquiry phrases, saying, “Hey, Pete, I heard you say that you think we should stay. Can you help me understand why? Can you help me see where you’re coming from? Can you share your reasoning with me?”

Skillful inquiry is perhaps the single best way to sort of build communication bridges I know and have ever read about. And all you got to do, we’re talking about the world of work, but all I got to do is look around the world we’re living in, the divisiveness politically, etc., and you realize we are all constantly screaming at each other from the top of our ladders, and we’re not good at all of helping people see where we’re coming from, or taking perspective by asking people where they’re coming from.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. That’s so good. That’s good. And speaking of emotions, what are your top tips on managing the emotions, like, either you’re super scared or you’re super angry when you are prepping to speak up, choose courage?

Jim Detert
Yeah, so fear and anger, we sort of all intuitively know, they have the opposite action propensities. So, fear will tend to make you sort of flee or freeze. Fear is an avoidance emotion, whereas, anger is an approach emotion. Anger makes you want to go toward the source. So, the advice has to be quite different. With fear, you have to do things, frankly, often ahead of time. Over longer periods of time, it can be about being in good physical shape, it can be about mindfulness, yoga, anything that sort of helps you sort of change your sort of base physiological response.

People with high fear often find they have to also take specific steps like scripting out in advance things they’re going to say. They may have to practice more and have people sort of shoot back at them so they can practice sort of staying in the moment and not fleeing. Most people don’t physically run out of a room but you’ll see them just shut down and cave. And so, they have to really practice camping down the fear.

Anger, on the other hand, is, in some respects, useful because if you get angry enough about something, you’re actually likely to bring it up and say or do something about it. The problem with anger is you’re likely to be quite unskillful – offensive, for example. And here I’ll tell a story about myself. Most people, I think, in fact, almost everybody who knows me would say, “Jim has no problem choosing courage but at times Jim has had a problem with displaying competent courage.” And in most instances, that would be because I let anger at injustices or problems or whatever get in the way.

And so, part of dealing with anger is what you do in the moment. It turns out these old adages like, “Count to ten,” or, “Take three deep breaths,” these are actually quite useful because what they actually are doing is trying to engage your parasympathetic nervous system to calm down. It’s often a very useful tactic to try to teach yourself, to train yourself, to accept in emergencies not speak in that moment but schedule a follow-up, allow the moment to pass and then schedule after you’ve sort of gotten your emotions back together.

And then, frankly, part of it is knowing who you are and using strategies, sometimes even technologies to be your friend. So, in my case, this was a number of years ago, having made the classic mistake of firing off some emails when I was upset. I’d learned that you can actually set the Outlook timer to basically hold all emails you’ve sent in the outbox for any designated number of minutes or hours. And so, for quite some time, I set my Outlook outgoing mail to hold for 60 minutes because I knew that if I basically didn’t send emails for an hour, there was a very high likelihood I would calm down and revisit that email and have a chance to save it before I couldn’t.

So, learning strategies for both, lessening your anger, and then sort of navigating around it are really important.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Jim, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Jim Detert
I think, again, the thing to really know is that if you accept the premise that we’ve talked about here today, which is that this is a choice everybody has to make and it’s about skills, then the really important thing to do is to set specific goals. And I guess one thing we haven’t talked about is the reason I think people often don’t engage in courage at work is they think of the very scariest thing that comes to mind first, and then they, rightfully so, conclude one of two things, “I’m not going to do that because it’s too difficult and it’ll go terribly,” or they’ll say, “I tried it, and because it was so incredibly difficult and I wasn’t ready, I totally screwed it up. And that only confirmed for me how stupid choosing courage is.”

I think this is akin to the idea that you decide, you’re not a runner but you decide you’re going to run a 10K. Well, the dumbest thing to do would be to go out and try to run 10K the first day. You’d be so sore with so many injuries, you’d probably never jog again. So, what I encourage people to do is build a personal courage ladder. Yeah, you can put that scariest thing on the top rung but put some sort of moderately difficult things in the middle rungs, and put some things that you’re a little afraid of but you could imagine doing on the lowest rungs, and then choose those to start with.

Because, as with any skill, the way you actually build competence over time is you start small, and you have a little success, and you feel better about yourself, it increases your motivation. So, what we haven’t really, I think, talked about enough is the importance of starting small. That’s how all skills are developed.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jim Detert
Yeah, I love the quote of George Bernard Shaw. He says, “Reasonable people adapt to the world around themselves. Unreasonable people try to adapt the world to themselves, and that’s why all progress depends on unreasonable people.” I think we give so much advice about sort of fitting in, getting along, and sometimes we forget that, actually, the great change agents, the people who we most admire were okay pushing boundaries and being a little bit unreasonable.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Jim Detert
So, although these are quite dated, I think, perhaps the most powerful research ever done was the Milgram experiments on deference to authority. Milgram was, essentially, showing that in any reasonable size town in America, he could find people who would be willing to pull the shock lever to pretty high voltage simply because they were instructed to do so by power. And I think the Milgram studies and Asch’s conformity studies, they have shown us, time and again, how powerful the forces towards sort of conformity and deference in hierarchies is. And that is such a potent set of research to remind ourselves why we have to sort of choose courage and change systems.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Jim Detert
So, I love some of the classic fiction books, like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, these books that you say, “Gosh, 50 years, or however ahead of time, these people, even though writing fiction, really foresaw a world that was going to come into being.” Also, recently, a much more recent favorite, I read a book called Awareness by Anthony De Mello. He was sort of a Buddhist monk who, essentially, in this book is saying, “Stop trying to change everything in yourself and everybody else. The first step is just awareness,” and then has a lot of tips on how to just become more mindful and self-aware.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Jim Detert
Yeah, I tell you, I was thinking about this notion of tools, and I felt a little bit like a Luddite because I’m not so much of a tools guy. But I will tell you that what I love, actually, are intellectual frameworks. A simple one, very consistent with the conversation we’re having, is Kim Scott’s Radical Candor two-by-two framework where she describes being radically candid as that beautiful combination of telling the truth but also having people understand you care.

And I love her off-quadrant descriptions of ruinous empathy, people who don’t tell the truth because they’re so worried about looking like they care, or people who are obnoxiously aggressive, they tell the truth but nobody thinks they’re doing it for the right reason. And I find that notion of having to move either from ruinous empathy or from obnoxious aggression toward that quadrant of caring honesty just such a compelling reminder when I work with folks.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Jim Detert
So, I am a big reader of other folks’ advice on writing. And while people vary across the board – they write in the morning, they write at night, they write with a suit on, they write naked – you name it, there’s huge variance. But one thing that all writers seem to agree on is you got to have butt in seat, that books do not get written, articles do not get written, if you aren’t at the desk, if you aren’t writing.

And so, for me, a really important habit is just butt in seat. I don’t have to feel it, I don’t have to think I’m going to have great wisdom, I just do it. And, in fact, when I wrote Choosing Courage, I set a goal that I was going to write 15 minutes every day, just 15 minutes, I said, “If that’s all I got in me, fine. I’m going to write 15 minutes every single day until it was written.” And I did. And some days, because that was such an easy goal to achieve, I wrote for several hours, but there was no pressure to do just 15. And I think I wrote the first draft of Choosing Courage in 173 days of my 15-minute rule.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And is there a particular nugget you share that resonates with folks; you’re known for?

Jim Detert
So, I think I have said and seen multiple people quote this notion that leadership is not a popularity contest. We grow up thinking, because we see leaders as folks who emerge in the playground or in student council elections, or whatever, we think leadership is a popularity contest but great leadership is much, much harder than that and actually involves a willingness to sort of stand alone and sometimes do unpopular things. So, leadership is not a popularity contest. And then, more recently, I think this notion that competent courage comes from practice not any innate quality or capacity is, I think, something that has resonated with people.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Jim Detert
So, I’m pretty active on LinkedIn. I do a lot of writing and posting on LinkedIn. And I also have a website, simply JimDetert.com where my different projects, writing, curriculum, etc., are all shared.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jim Detert
Build that courage ladder for yourself and commit today, not tomorrow, not next week, not next month. Commit today to what you’re going to do. And the particular challenge, beyond just build the ladder and choose something, is lock yourself in. So, if you know you have a hard time following through on things you find sort of difficult or risky, put some stake in the ground. Tell your boss you’re going to do it. Make a pledge that you will give a sizable amount of money to a charity or political party you hate if you don’t take the action by a certain date. Somehow lock yourself in. That’s how people end up doing hard things.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jim, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success in all your courageous choices.

Jim Detert
Thank you much. Same to you.

673: Maximizing Wellbeing at Work with Gallup’s Dr. Jim Harter

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Dr. Jim Harter says, "70% of the variance in team engagement is influenced by the manager."

Dr. Jim Harter shares the key practices that improve wellbeing at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The five key ingredients to a thriving work life
  2. Top tips for developing each area of wellbeing
  3. What most organizations get wrong about wellbeing

About Jim

Jim Harter, Ph.D., is Chief Scientist for Gallup’s workplace management and wellbeing practices. He is coauthor of the No. 1 Wall Street Journal and Washington Post bestseller, It’s the Manager. He is also the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller 12: The Elements of Great Managing.

Dr. Harter’s book, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, is based on a global study of what differentiates people who are thriving from those who are not. His research is featured in First, Break All the Rules, and he contributed the foreword to Gallup’s updated edition of this groundbreaking bestseller.

Dr. Harter is the primary researcher and author of the first large-scale, multi-organization study to investigate the relationships between work-unit employee engagement and business results. His work has appeared in many publications, including Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and Time Magazine, and in academic articles and book chapters.

Dr. Harter received his doctorate in psychological and cultural studies in quantitative and qualitative methods from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL).

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

Dr. Jim Harter Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jim, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Jim Harter
Thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into much of your wisdom and research. I understand that your latest here has involved a hundred million plus people. What’s the story here?

Jim Harter
Well, we’ve had a chance to study workplaces all over the world for quite some time, to study individual strengths of people in the workplace. We’ve developed various tools for selecting people into the right jobs, and we’ve studied workplace environments extensively both inside organizations. So, think about thousands of organizations conducting census surveys and mapping the data down to the team level so that managers get a report on how they’re building a culture.

Then, also, we do polls of the entire globe, the only real-world poll of the entire globe, on issues like how engaged people are in their work, their wellbeing, how they think about their lives, and how they experience their days. And so, those accumulated interviews with people add up to actually, a hundred million is pretty conservative.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s interviews not survey responses. Interviews. That’s just huge. Hotdog! Well, while we’re here, I’ve got say the Gallup Engagement Research has been cited so many times by the hundreds of guests on the show that it’s just sort of an institution almost. And so, I’d love it if you could maybe, for everyone who’s wondering, how do we bucket it in terms of putting a person into the engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged categories? How do we arrive there?

Jim Harter
Well, we started off by studying which elements of human nature at work predict performance outcomes and conducted very large-scale studies looking at which particular survey items predict not only how people feel about their jobs overall but also performance outcomes like productivity, whether they’re likely to stay or leave an organization; profitability, were their customers are getting served the right kind of way; safety incidents; absenteeism. We’d looked at all these kinds of outcomes and we found that there were 12 elements that best explain what a great workplace culture looks like.

And so, we had questions we tested over and over again. And so, there are 12 elements that go into that formula that we apply to get at the percentage of engaged, not engaged, actively disengaged. And the percentage that we come up with is really a high bar. If you look at our global data, only about 20% of people are engaged globally. And, in the US. we’re talking about 36% as of the end of 2020. The good news is those numbers have been going up.

And when we study organizations, we have seen them move from less than 20% engaged all the way up to over 70%. I say it’s a high bar because the criteria is performance. There’s a lot of organizations out there using other metrics like combining, on a one-to-five scale, the fours and fives together, and coming up with a percentage of favorable, oftentimes calling that engaged. That’s a pretty soft metric. That’s more like a satisfaction metric than a high bar kind of metric.

The reason for the high bar though, again, is it gets you to a real culture when you improve on it and it gets you to real performance outcomes when you improve on it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it’s a high bar in terms of the robustness of the study. Is it also a high bar in terms of like the, I don’t know, strictness of the grading on the 12 questions? Or how do you think about that?

Jim Harter
Yeah, it is, because we looked at how each of those questions relate to performance outcomes. And so, if you think about like a on one-to-five scale, there’s a big difference between someone. I’ll give you an example of the question, “I know what is expected of me at work.” Only about half of the people globally can strongly agree to that. That means the other half are at least somewhat confused at what they’re supposed to do. Think about the problems that creates in the work environment when people just don’t know what to do next. That’s why managing is so important.

But a difference between a four and a five is very significant, and so we lean more toward people given those more…those strongly agree kinds of responses. It doesn’t mean that they have to strongly agree to every question, of course. But it’s a formula we apply based on how that scale relates to different performance outcomes. So, yeah, it’s a higher bar in terms of how we’ve determined, you can call them cutoffs, to determine whether you’re engaged or not, but there’s a reason. And the reason is it really gets an authentic culture when organizations improve on it. It gets into a very authentic culture where a leader can feel like they’ve got something reliable that they’ve built.

And it’s been particularly important to see this play out during crises. We’ve studied this research. We’ve conducted ten meta analyses now of how engagement predicts performance outcomes. But we’ve had a chance to study the relationship between engagement and performance during two previous recessions and now this one. And we find the correlation between engagement and performance is a little bit stronger during tough times.

And so, think of it as like an insurance policy, when the going gets tough, are your people going to get into more of a fight or flight mentality or are they going to be resilient and have your back because you’ve had their back?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. I’ve wanted to know that for a long, long time. I’ve seen the 12 questions, I’ve heard the 36% figure many times, and now we know that the 36% is a high bar. But I think it’s also a true bar in terms of if you just talked to your buddies, maybe a little over a third will say, “Yeah, I’m engaged. I dig it.” And others are like, “Yeah, it’s okay, I guess.”

Jim Harter
And there’s a big chunk in the middle there where they’re just kind of if they get a better opportunity, they’ll take it with another organization. They show up, do the minimum required, not much else, but they’re not the people who really are going to be resilient during tough times and surpass the competition with innovative ideas during the good times.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And it’s encouraging that some workplaces have indeed gotten to 70% and that feels true as well in terms of if you talked to some folks at some amazing places, it’s like, “Yeah, the vast majority of people really are digging this here.” So, thank you. That was just an appetizer, an amuse-bouche to our main topic today. Wellbeing at Work is your latest. Kind of what’s the big idea here and some of the most intriguing discoveries from these many millions of interviews?

Jim Harter
Well, we wrote a wellbeing book back in 2010, and that one, we leveraged the global discoveries from that world poll I was talking about earlier. And the question we asked for that book was, and all the research we did leading up to it, was, “Are there some universal characteristics in people or elements that drive wellbeing in terms of people having a thriving overall life and experiencing really good days?

Well, we know that every region in the world is somewhat different culturally but we found there are five elements that were universal and consistently predicted thriving lives and great days for people where they had high interests, high enjoyment, lower levels of stress, worry, anger, or sadness, all those negative emotions we can list off.

And the five that we found, that writing was directed at individuals, “How do we help individuals live more thriving lives?” And the five are career wellbeing, social wellbeing, financial wellbeing, physical wellbeing, and community wellbeing. And they’re in an order for a purpose. This particular book, we decided to aim it at organizational leaders and managers, primarily because we see an issue right now where most organizations don’t have what we’d call a net thriving culture, where employees not only their work life in terms of their engagement, but also their overall life is either struggling or suffering.

And we saw this play out during the pandemic, in particular, where we saw drops in the percentage of thriving employees, in spikes in worry and stress in our global data. We’re seeing a continuous rise globally in the percentage of people that have negative emotions. And even before this pandemic, Pete, we were trending on what the new workforce was looking for. And one of the things the new workforce was looking for was a workplace that improves their overall life. It isn’t just a job. The separation between work and life had already started to fade away primarily because we carry these devices around with us that connect us to our work more often, maybe sometimes than we like, and sometimes we can connect with the work when we want to in our spare time.

But people in the younger generations, you can think about Millennial and Gen Z, expect their workplace to improve their lives. And all these trends that we saw pre-pandemic just got magnified. The number one perk people were asking for, pre-pandemic, was flex time. Boom! We had the great shift and a high percentage of people had that flex time. And there’s all kinds of things I can get into in terms of we trended a lot of data during COVID and continue to, so there’s a lot underneath that as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s interesting right there. I mean, hey, so we got our flex time but my hunch is that we’re not so much feeling a whole lot of wellbeing during pandemic times.

Jim Harter
Yes. It’s interesting. Pre-pandemic, the people who worked from home 100% of the time, and, by the way, that was only about 4% of the population who were 100% worked from home, and suddenly that jumped up to 48% full-time work from home after the great shift that we call it. And 70% of people in jobs, at least some of the time, and most of those some of the times were most of the time working from home. But the interesting thing was pre-pandemic, those people who worked from home 100% of the time, that 4%, they had lower levels of reported burnout.

During the pandemic, the 100% work-from-homers actually had higher levels of burnout than the others. So, there’s something there. As I talked to organizations, almost all of them that had a lot of work-from-home folks during COVID or continue to, are planning on some type of a hybrid type option going forward.

The good news there is the hybrid employees, pre-pandemic, were the ones that had the highest levels of engagement at work. So, there’s a factor inside engagement around autonomy that’s really important. And great managers find ways to build autonomy into jobs and, at the same time, get involved with people in setting goals and holding them accountable but still have autonomy and connectedness with them.

So, the solution part of all this really does sit not exclusively but highly with managers because they’re in the best position to know what people are going through and get close enough to people to know their individual situation.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, what are some of the key practices that contribute to teams and organizations becoming net thriving?

Jim Harter
At the organizational level, there are some, I think, really important foundational things you have to get right. I’ll come back to this later if you want me to, but there are some threats and some risks, there are barriers to organizations having a net thriving culture that if you don’t take care of those, you’re going to have some issues.

But one of the things is that it’s really important for organizations to think about those five elements of wellbeing that we listed. They’re all science-based. We know we can rely on them. If we work on those and improve them, we can make a big difference in people’s lives, and they’re all changeable to some extent. They’re areas everybody can work on.

But I would argue, the organizations need an organizational structure so that everything that they’re offering employees, they are aligning with at least one of those five elements or more so it makes sense to people, so people know why it exists and why it was developed by the organization. Too often, people might have programs, policies, perks that are offered by an organization, they either are unaware of it, or they don’t know why it exists, or just doesn’t come top of mind to them until there’s a crisis or something. So, the organizational structure is important.

It’s also important that the CEO is highly involved in building a net thriving culture. The reason for that is anytime we look at culture change, it’s owned from the top of the organization, not just stated but actually owned and an important value that the organization holds close. And we’re going to see more and more of that, I think, going forward with all the pressure on ESG, the Environmental, Social and Governance standards that are kind of finally coming to a head, I think, in terms of some more official standards. And at Gallup, we’ve been working on the people component of that, the social part you could say.

I think another thing that’s really important from a practice standpoint is to equip managers to move from a boss mentality to a coaching mentality, and equip them to have the right kinds of wellbeing conversations that don’t feel forced but rather are more natural. So, for them to have those natural conversations, there’s a progression that has to happen in terms of how they become upskilled.

I think, also, what organizations can do is develop a network of wellbeing coaches. And what I mean by that are people who’ve become experts in particular areas and gather best practices and share best practices. Part of that is peer to peer, I think, is really important. In the wellbeing space, people learn a lot from their peers because, “These are people like me. They’re not somebody who’s making a lot more money or whatever,” trying to tell them how to have higher wellbeing. It doesn’t have as high a credibility for them.

So, “Learning from people like me and getting ideas from people like me,” but collecting best practices and having some experts internally. An example would be there’s so much information out there about nutrition. You can look all over the place and you see little tiny studies that say something, and in the next month they say something else. I think organizations need someone who integrates the best science and teaches it back to employees so they know what they can rely on.

And then the other thing, I think, is important from a practice standpoint is to go through an audit how you’re doing things right now, your rules, your guidelines, how you communicate, your facilities, your incentive systems, how you recognize people, the different events and developmental opportunities you have available. Those can all be audited through the lens of, “Does this improve an individual wellbeing?” You can do it statistically, you can do it qualitatively, but just to go through and hold yourself accountable for everything that you’re doing right now and whether it’s really one utilized into, related to higher levels of wellbeing for people.

So, you can go to that level of detail on this but most organizations just want to start somewhere. And to start somewhere, you need to get some good measures in place and you need to see where you have variance, where you have some highs and lows, and start digging into what’s going on, and study some best practices inside your own organization. But, above all, equip your managers to have the right kinds of conversations to move on that boss to coach journey.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, when we think about some of the particular practices that the coaches are learning and sharing, could you maybe give us one or two inside each of the five elements of wellbeing that really make a world of difference for a relatively small amount of effort?

Jim Harter
Well, we’ll just go down the list. Career wellbeing, probably the simplest and most efficient practice you can get really good at is through strengths. So, Gallup has a tool. It’s called CliftonStrengths and it’s a scientific assessment that will list off your strengths, your 34 strengths and there’s all kinds of combinations that anybody could get, but the key is to understand what your strengths are individually.

And when I’m talking about strengths, I’m talking about innate kind of characteristic that are not likely to change significantly once we become adults. We still change and evolve but they’re less likely to change and evolve than something like how we view our workplace or skills. It’s more innate. So, leveraging your own strengths, knowing about them, and leveraging them. It just leads for more efficient activities inside organizations where people don’t try to be something that they’re not and they develop through who they are in unique ways.

So, that’s probably the most direct one on career wellbeing. When people are using their strengths, we’d measure these in the moment, they report much higher levels of energy when they can do what they do best. So, continually figuring that out and refining it, but that tool I’ve mentioned can give people a big head start there.

Social wellbeing, it starts with onboarding, I think, in organizations. We have to make it a priority during onboarding where people get to know other people right away. And I think that became a challenge for organizations that were doing onboarding during COVID. There wasn’t a lot of hiring going on but, going forward, I think organizations are going to have to have strategies for how they do that because the advantage on the social wellbeing front is there for people who already knew each other in working from home and remotely. That’s not difficult to connect on Zoom and to have conversations if you already know somebody and have worked with them for a long time, but it’s really the newer people where I think there’s a big gap there that needs to be filled.

But social wellbeing, we have a question we ask on our engagement survey called…it’s worded “I have a best friend at work.” It’s kind of controversial because not everybody thinks that that’s important in the workplace but it links to all kinds of outcomes so we kept it in there. That’s a social wellbeing component. And people ask me, “How do you change that? How do you effect that?” I would argue it’s the easiest of the engagement elements to act on because it requires creating situations where people have a chance to get to know one another and kind of getting out of the way and letting human nature take over. We’re human beings. We’re social. We tend to connect naturally if we know something about someone else. So, it’s not one you have to try to force or anything like that, but just a couple of thoughts there on social.

On financial, the financial wellbeing is about two things if we’re going to boil it down. It’s about reducing stress. It can be related to money, of course, but it’s not completely about the amount of money you make. It’s also about how you manage that money to reduce stress, daily stress, and increase longer-term security.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How should I be spending my money to do that?

Jim Harter
Well, one thing is we have so much automation now, we don’t have to think about paying bills as much anymore, which helps a lot to reduce stress.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, when I have to write a check and I’m kind of irritated.

Jim Harter
Yeah, it is the activity of writing that check. So, automation can help. The other thing is once you take care of your basic needs, reduce stress, spending money on experiences, we’ve seen, other people seen, and the academic literature, spending on experiences less.

You develop stories, the stories might even evolve that you had during those experiences but they live on. Whereas, the physical purchases, while they’re nice for a short period of time, it kind of fades a bit. We’ve all kind of experienced that. But spending money on the right kinds of things so you’re building those stories and experiences with people, I think, is a really kind of creative way of prioritizing the extra money that you might blow on something else. So, I think that money management is a big factor, of course, but then kind of aiming it at, “How do I create more really good experiences with other people with the money?” Sometimes it’s your own individual experience but, in many cases, it’s experiences with other people.

Physical wellbeing. You might immediately think of physical wellbeing as disease burden or the lack of disease burden, and that’s certainly a part of it. Imagine your life in such a way where you reduce that. That became so apparent during COVID where the people who had less disease burden or just more resilient to the virus. And so, we had some of our researchers develop a model around that and it’s amazingly accurate at predicting mortality rates.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, when you say disease burden, does that just mean I have a lot of diseases or how do we think about that?

Jim Harter
Well, it can range anywhere from obesity to heart disease, to preexisting condition, cancer. Hypertension, so even depression anxiety falls into disease burden but those are more psychological. But the point we try to make about physical wellbeing is that the end goal should be…because some of our disease burden, we can’t do anything about, it’s genetic, right?

So, the goal under the physical wellbeing umbrella should be that we manage our life, in whatever situation we’re in, to increase energy so that we can get things done that we want to get done. And the things that we can influence involve what we eat, involve the quality of sleep that we get, and the movement, our movement. We call this exercise now. The people that we studied, George Gallup did a study of, he called them the oldsters but they lived to be 95 plus. And one thing that they had in common was that they kept working, by the way, until their, many of them, 70s and 80s. They just kept working but they had jobs that required them to move around a lot, not just all farming jobs either. There are all kinds of different jobs but they moved a lot.

They also ate smaller meals. They had jobs that they loved. They loved their work. Their spare time was spent with family and friends. So, you can kind of see those five elements coming out. They lived in a variety of different types of communities, some urban, some rural, some suburban so the type of community wasn’t a differentiator. But I just thought that was interesting that a lot of what he learned back then studying these people who lived long lives, even though their practices weren’t identical to what we can do now. They had some of the same themes that stuck out.

Pete Mockaitis
And while we’re talking physical, so move more, that’s good. Any quick best practices associated with the sleeping better and the eating better?

Jim Harter
Well, one is both too much sleep and too little are both bad, that’s what all the research is showing. But it’s really the quality of the sleep that’s the key, if you wake up feeling well-rested, refreshed. I’m a big fan of the short power nap, going conscious for 10 minutes, that’s very refreshing. I reviewed some research that I found very interesting that said, that showed, actually there’s a YouTube on as well that shows visually there’s a fact with sleep that it’s the only organ in our body, apparently, where the waste cells only leave, only get drained out or cleaned out when we sleep. The rest of our body is continuously getting rid of wastes.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the brain is the only organ?

Jim Harter
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah.

Jim Harter
And you can kind of feel that when you take a nap or wake up feeling well rested. I use sleep in my writing, not that I’m writing when I’m sleeping. I just kind of learned this trick where day one, I’ll kind of try to get my head all the information I can around the topic I’m writing on, and in the next morning, after I sleep on it, it somehow kind of gets integrated better, and it comes out a lot more smoothly where I’m kind of struggling day one to even write good sentences. But I think sleep is a really good one to just kind of think about how you do it and when you do it and how you manage that effectively.

On diet, to me, and again there’s all kinds of advice on diet, but to me, from what I’ve read, the two takeaways are try to reduce processed food and eat smaller amounts. The calorie thing is still a thing. It still means something. There’s been so much emphasis on what you eat but the amounts still matters, and that’s the hardest thing to manage, I think.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That’s physical. And how about community?

Jim Harter
Community, at a basic level, is about making sure you live in a safe area, having a safe place to live, and having housing that’s adequate for you and your family. And at a higher level, community wellbeing is about giving back, giving in a way that makes sense for you. And the giving part can vary by person. It can vary by stage of life, but organizations can really set people up for that by just sharing opportunities for giving, connecting people who have similar passions and interests together, and just providing a wide range of opportunities, and giving as an organization first.

So, “Here’s what we’re doing as an organization to contribute to our community and to society in general.” And many, probably most cases, organizations can do that through what they do in their work, their business, but outside of the work that they do, they can do it so many other ways as well. So, that’s an important one.

Neuroscientists found that the part of our brain that lights up when we get something, lights up even more when we give, so sort of the helper’s high. And so, again, I think organizations can play a huge role there and on all these elements by putting some defaults in place that make it easy for people to do what’s in their best intentions.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so we got some principles in terms of how organizations and leaders can facilitate some more good stuff happening and some specific practices for individuals. Can you share with us a cool story or example or a case study of a team or organization that went from, you know, not so much wellbeing to boatloads of wellbeing and how that unfolded?

Jim Harter
Well, those areas I listed off are the ones that I have seen leveraged the best. I think there’s still long ways to go for most organizations in the wellbeing front. So, for instance, on the career wellbeing component, we’ve seen people move from the bottom of our database over time all the way to the top decile of our database, top 10%. And they did that by being persistent, that’s one thing. But there’s kind of four patterns we saw in organizations that create change.

And one of them is, and I mentioned this earlier, it’s got to start strategically with the CEO and the board thinking about why they’re trying to create a net thriving culture or a highly engaged culture and articulate that and explain it to people so they know why it’s happening, that it’s not just a flavor of the month kind of thing, and it’s really a part of who we’re going to be as an organization.

Second, they had excellent communication. They just continuously communicated best practices and they continuously communicated “What we’re doing and why,” and it’s almost like over-communication so people know the why. And then all the way from when they’re fielding a survey to what they‘re going to do after it and how they’re going to create action plans and train managers.

The third is that manager piece. It’s upskilling managers from boss to coach is really important. And then the fourth pattern we saw was accountability. They make it clear that’s part of the manager’s job to engage their workers and to improve the lives of their workers. So, those are kind of some general patterns we saw but, yeah, we’ve seen organizations move from the bottom all the way to the top of the database. So, I know this stuff is changeable.

I think wellbeing is more difficult to change than engagement but you got to get the engagement part right first because that’s what I think as the nuts and bolts of managing. If you want to help individuals in your organization improve their lives, you’ve got to start by taking care of the work part of it because that builds trust where people aren’t second-guessing your intentions, and it builds more comfortable conversations so that managers and the individuals they’re managing can have open dialogue. And not everybody is going to want to talk about their whole life, and that’s fine, but it opens the door.

And, at minimum, managers can direct people to the right resources and help them know what’s there from the organization. But, at maximum, managers become coaches that actually help people improve their lives, give them some advice, and connect them to the right other people who might be on the same path as them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, Jim, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Jim Harter
I talked earlier about some barriers or risks to improving a culture from maybe struggling to what we would call net thriving, where people in the organization not only have very positive views of their present life but also think the next five years will be even better. Those five elements I listed lead to that. But there are some barriers and they can kind of trick people, I think, a little bit.

Well, one of them, in particular, I’ll just list off a couple of them. One of them that I think maybe most commonly becomes a barrier are to assume that, “Our policies, programs, and perks will change your culture.” If that were the case, a lot of organizations wouldn’t have culture problems. I think policies, programs, and perks are very important but they won’t necessarily change your culture. What you need to change your culture are managers who are well skilled to lead other people because they’re, again, the ones closest to the lives in their organization.

And so, having poorly skilled managers is another big risk. And so, upskilling managers to move from boss to coach, I think, is really important. And that involves integrating several things that are kind of disparate in organizations right now. Over here, you might have a wellness program that’s offered to people. Over here, you might have employee engagement survey and program. Over here, you might have performance management. And over here, you might have learning and development. That boss-to- coach journey needs to bring all those things together so it makes sense to managers and so that it also leverages the strengths of each person. It’s a strengths-based journey where you’re starting off with who you are as an individual and building on top of that instead of trying to make everybody the same or trying to get people to become someone who they’re not.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jim Harter
One of my favorite quotes is one that was attributed to the great Albert Einstein, but I actually looked it up, he actually said this in a more complex way, but, “Make everything as simple as possible but not too simple.” I’m a researcher, and the complexity is already there so, to me, one of the things I learned along the way is, “We’ve got to make sure that the research is A-accurate but also not too simple, but also applicable and useful to people.” So, I really like that quote.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Jim Harter
I’ve often referenced the Whitehall studies, the particular part of the Whitehall studies, were done over in Europe, where they tracked people longitudinally. And one subpart of those studies where they looked at mortality and heart disease and other future health issues. One subpart of that big study looked at workplaces, and they found that workplaces with better environments, they call it organizational justice, but workplaces with better environments, the concepts overlap with what we call engagement. Those better environments had lower risks of coronary heart disease and lower mortality rates, and they controlled for all sorts of things. So, I reference that a lot and I think it’s a really important research.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Jim Harter
I like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. I think it just does an excellent job of bringing together two parts of wellbeing, the remembering self and experiencing self, which we talked about in wellbeing at work as well. I think it’s important to think about those two parts of how we experience life.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Jim Harter
This is kind of geeky but I leverage a lot Google Scholar and PubMed because they’re just great sources for finding things quickly and searching.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Jim Harter
I think that 10-minute power nap. I try to get it as many days as I can. It’s really important to kind of have a refreshing afternoon.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you frequently?

Jim Harter
Probably the one that I see quoted the most is “70% of the variance in team engagement is influenced by the manager.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Jim Harter
You could go to Gallup.com and we have a whole series of new articles and findings coming out all the time, reports, or I’m on LinkedIn as well. I’m pretty active on LinkedIn, that’s another place.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jim Harter
I would say make sure you know your strengths and have them clearly in mind, and the strengths of your coworkers. And one thing to build on that is you got to direct your strength at something. Make sure you have a minimum of one meaningful conversation per week.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jim, this has been fun. Thanks so much and much luck to you with all your good work on wellbeing.

Jim Harter
Thank you, Pete. Appreciate the invitation.