Podcast: Leadership Amplitude Episode 1

Take a deep dive into leadership development and team optimization.

Strategies to improve your employees' engagement

Learn about the different types of employee engagement groups, the reasons they become disengaged and why it's important to leaders. See how, with our approach, leaders can improve employee retention by understanding the missing links that keep us from realizing change.


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Anna Slaydon: Welcome to Leadership Amplitude, a podcast production of The BB&T Leadership Institute. I’m your host, Anna Slaydon. And together, we’ll take a deep dive into leadership development and team optimization, but not just in theory. We’ll be looking for those tips and tools that you can apply the very next time you’re in your office so that you can make little changes that yield big results.

We’re joined by Dr. Steve Swavely from The BB&T Leadership Institute. We’ll be going through a four-part series that focuses on employee engagement, specifically the missing links of employee engagement that you’ve probably not heard before. We’ll also be identifying some strategies to improve your employees’ engagement that you can start using right away. Thank you so much for joining us, Steve.

Steve Swavely: Ah, it’s a pleasure to be here. And I’m talking about one of my favorite things, that’s engagement. I think it’s really important for leaders to understand employee engagement and I really enjoy talking about the research and what’s going on in this area.

Anna Slaydon: Can you help us understand the term “engagement” and why leaders should even be caring about that?

Steve Swavely: Yeah, why do you even care about engagement?

Anna Slaydon: Yeah.

Steve Swavely: Sure. Well, the importance of employee engagement in the workplace was really first brought into focus by the Gallup folks at the Gallup organization. And they’ve been conducting an ongoing study for—it’s been over a decade now—that examines engagement in the US workforce. And their findings have identified and tracked three groups of American workers.

The first group is a group that they call the “actively engaged.“ And these are the folks in your organization that are self-starters. They’re willing to go the extra mile. They give discretionary effort. Essentially, they’re gonna do whatever it takes to get the job done. And this group makes up only about a third of the US workforce. In fact, the actual figure’s about 33%.

And then there’s a second group that the Gallup called the ”not engaged.” And I love that term because it really describes what this group is all about. These are the folks that are doing just enough to get by. They’re gonna do what’s expected of them, nothing more and nothing less. And this group accounts for about half the US workforce.

Anna Slaydon: Half?

Steve Swavely: Yeah.

Anna Slaydon: Half of the workforce is just doing enough to get by?

Steve Swavely: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, just pause and think about that for a second. But the good news is that this group represents a great opportunity for those leaders that can figure out how to tap into them and move them into that actively engaged group.

Anna Slaydon: So my heart stopped at 50% because that—when you think about what that means in terms of productivity, that is not only a lot of very unhappy people, but that’s a huge loss in terms of financial well-being for companies when half of their workforce is just doing enough to get by. That just blows my mind. But what I’m hearing from you is don’t panic, that even though that’s where they are right now, that they’re in a place where they can actually be invested in and moving them into that first category, which I think you called ”actively engaged.”

Steve Swavely: That’s—yeah, that’s spot on. And really, to do that, it takes leadership. And that’s a key to managing engagement, as we’ll see as we—as we unpack this whole concept of employee engagement. And Anna, there’s a—there’s a final group, as well. And...

Anna Slaydon: That’s 16%, right? Am I doing my math right?

Steve Swavely: That’s exactly right, 16%. And these are called the ”actively disengaged.” These are the employees that are either overtly or covertly trying to sabotage the efforts of the organization.

Anna Slaydon: Wow.

Steve Swavely: Yeah. They’re your disgruntled employees. And they’re the employees who—I like to say they’ve quit, but they haven’t left yet. They stick around and try to spread their poison.

Anna Slaydon: Wow.

Steve Swavely: While that number of 16% may see relatively small, just consider this for a moment. It’s estimated that each actively disengaged employee can infect seven others with their discontent.

Anna Slaydon: So it’s—it is downright infectious?

Steve Swavely: Yeah. Yeah. It represents an organizational cancer that, really, I don’t think any leader can afford to not consider or to not pay attention to. And I’ll tell you, if those percentages were not disheartening enough as it was, and if that didn’t grab your attention as a leader, here’s another critical finding from the research that every leader needs to be aware of. Anna, you know what the number one reason employees identified as their reason for disengagement?

Anna Slaydon: I’m gonna with the money. They’re not feeling like they’re being paid enough.

Steve Swavely: Yeah. That’s exactly what we hear when we ask leaders, ”What do you think is the reason for disengagement?” And typically, the response is, ”Well, they want—they want more money.” And while money’s certainly important, that is not the number one reason.

Anna Slaydon: Oh, it’s not?

Steve Swavely: No. What the Gallup data show is that the number one reason is that people report a bad relationship with their boss.

Anna Slaydon: So what would that look, that they’re cared about or…

Steve Swavely: Yeah. Well, it’s a couple things. It’s—those disengaged folks identify themselves as feeling like that their boss doesn’t care about them as a person or that their boss hasn’t acted with their best interests at heart. And I think the biggest one is that these folks identify themselves as believing that their boss is not really invested in the relationship between them.

Anna Slaydon: So really, that relationship between the leader and the employee is even more important than how much money they’re getting paid or how good the benefit package is? That right there, which is within their ability to make positive changes in, is even more important than boosting their salary or getting those better benefits?

Steve Swavely: Well, you hit on something really important, which is that yeah, very frequently as a leader in an organization, I don’t have any control over what the salaries are. Those are kinda dictated from the top. But as a leader, I do have control over my relationship with my people. And that’s a—that’s a very important point, as we’ll see as we dig down into some of the engagement data that look at, ”How do we improve engagement?”

Anna Slaydon: What are the benefits?

Steve Swavely: Well, yeah. The—there’s some pretty good research on identifying, what are the specific benefits of higher engagement? And one of ’em is reduced turnover. Keeping your best employees from jumping ship and going to work for your competition, that’s a benefit right there that should be enough to make employee engagement every company’s number one initiative.

Anna Slaydon: You certainly don’t wanna train associates that just go to your competition, especially when training can be—it’s expensive.

Steve Swavely: Exactly. Yeah. The costs of losing a good employee are—they’re massive. Another benefit is that engaged employees are much more sensitive to customer needs and they’re gonna take better care of your customers that are spending money in your business.

And then there’s also increased productivity. Those engaged folks are much more productive. In fact, you can—you can chart the level of productivity within an organization just by charting their level of engagement. As engagement goes up, so does productivity, and vice versa.

Anna Slaydon: So making those little changes, it sounds like, can really have a direct impact on the overall organization’s bottom line.

Steve Swavely: And that's one of the clear benefits of investing in engagement in your organization, is increased revenue. And when you’re maximizing productivity and you’re increasing sales by improving customer satisfaction, your revenue’s gonna go up. But it’s not just increased revenue, but also increased profits. We know that increasing revenue’s not enough. If as a business owner, it costs me $10 to increase revenue by $5, well, that’s not a good business model.

Anna Slaydon: That’s not good. Don’t do that.

Steve Swavely: No, that’s not gonna work. But studies show that there’s a really clear return on investing in employee engagement that hits the bottom line in a—in a really, very positive way. A host of other benefits to a highly engaged workforce, things that when you hear ’em, you go, ”Well, yeah, that makes sense”—things like reduced legal costs, a more satisfying work environment for everyone, being identified as the employer of choice, which makes attracting great talent much easier. Then there’s also the increased potential for greater creativity, just to name a few.

Anna Slaydon: So can you paint the picture of what The Leadership Institute is doing that’s different from others out there that are already working in engagement?

Steve Swavely: Yeah. Sure. I think The BB&T Leadership Institute’s approach to engagement, really, it builds off the great work that’s been done by Gallup, but it takes it to the next level by providing what I call a prescriptive approach. To explain what I mean by that, lemme start with our definition of engagement and then talk a little about our model of engagement. We define engagement as enthusiasm for and dedication to work that leads employees to enjoy performing at their very best. So it’s not about getting the most outta people by burning them out or running them into the ground. It’s about helping them get to a place where they really enjoy the work and they enjoy giving you that discretionary effort.

We’ve developed an engagement model that begins with the alignment of purpose. And what I mean by that is it’s aligning three things. We’re aligning what the employee’s good at, what they love doing, and what the organization needs. Leaders have to really get deep into their employees’ beliefs. This—there’s a—there’s a very well-known concept of—in psychology. And it’s this idea that our beliefs create behaviors that get us the results that we see.

And so if we want to change engagement, we want to change a person’s behaviors, we gotta look at, what are the beliefs that are either promoting engagement or getting in the way of engagement? And that’s what this model does. If you could imagine a graph. And the vertical axis represents a measure of a person’s beliefs surrounding what we call ”rational commitments to work” and the horizontal axis represents a measure of their beliefs as related to emotional commitments to work. And those rational factors on that vertical axis of the model represent employee beliefs such as, for example, ”I believe I know what I need to do to be successful in my job,” ”I believe I have the freedom to do the work as I see fit.” And the question is, do your employees believe those things to be true, and how strongly?

And then there’s the emotional factors on that horizontal axis, which represent beliefs such as, ”I believe what I do in my job’s important,” ”I believe my efforts are being valued by my manager.” When we first began talking about this model, we’d get asked, ”Well, how do you measure them?” We said, ”We said, ”Well, that’s a—that’s a great question.” And so we’ve—over the last couple years, have developed a tool to measure an employee’s beliefs around those two factors.

And where those two factors intersect on that graph, they can be plotted, and this provides a picture of employee engagement for leaders to begin to understand what’s going on in their organization. We know that, for example, employees that score low on both the rational and the emotional measures, well, they’re gonna fall in the bottom left corner of that graph. They’d be described as being in that actively disengaged group that the Gallup folks talk about. Those are the folks that have quit, but they stick around to infect others with their negative beliefs.

Anna Slaydon: I think the word you used was they were a cancer that cannot be afforded.

Steve Swavely: Exactly. Exactly right.

Anna Slaydon: Yeah.

Steve Swavely: Yeah. We also will have, by using this tool, the capacity to identify employees that score high on one of the factors, but not the other. And this would represent taking that not engaged category and breaking it into two groups. And again, remember, this is the group that they’re doing just enough to get by.

On our model, the two types of employees that fall into that group are measured by the rational versus the emotional factors. If they score high on the rational factor, but low on the emotional, they’ll fall in the top left quadrant of that graph. These are what we call ”consistent performers.” They’re consistent, but not necessarily giving you their very best. You might say they’re consistently mediocre.

And then in contrast, we have those employees that score high on the emotional factors, low on the rational. These are what we call the ”committed performers.” They fall in that lower right quadrant of the graph. They’re emotionally committed to the mission of the team or the organization, but they believe that there’s a lack of clarity or lack of direction or some sense of autonomy’s missing in their ability to achieve the mission that they’re—that they’re so passionate about.

Anna Slaydon: So it sounds like that is that group that is at highest risk of moving on to a competitor and getting what they’re missing to move into the area where they’re at peak performance, that this is where that employee retention benefit comes into play.

Steve Swavely: Absolutely. And when that happens, and you lose the employee to your competition and they get what’s missing in your organization somewhere else, now they become a high performer in organizations that are competing against you.

Anna Slaydon: But not for you?

Steve Swavely: Yeah, exactly.

Anna Slaydon: Yeah. Gotcha.

Steve Swavely: Exactly right. Yeah. And of course, our goal is to develop a workforce that scores high on both those rational and emotional factors. Employees that fall into that top right quadrant of the graph, this is what we call ”devoted performers.” These are the employees that are operating at that actively engaged level of performance, which by our definition are those employees that have that enthusiasm for their work and their dedication to it.

Anna Slaydon: So let’s dive a little bit deeper into the actual measurement of those two factors.

Steve Swavely: Yeah. Well, as I said earlier, what we’re measuring there are peoples’ beliefs. And as we’ll talk about in some detail in later sessions of this podcast, these beliefs are made up of six very specific drivers of engagement. Three of them are on the rational side of that model and the other three are on the emotional side of the model.

The tool that we’ve developed is a tool that will help us measure them in a way that we can provide very specific feedback to a leader about each of the drivers. What this does is it allows them to know where to focus their resources that they wanna dedicate to increasing engagement. So this model goes beyond just providing a leader with an engagement number. It gives them information on which drivers of engagement might be bolstering, and just as important, where might they already be doing a great job?

Anna Slaydon: Okay. So kinda knowing what is not broken, that doesn’t need to be changed, that is being effective, but then knowing where your growth areas are so that you can make those changes to really improve it?

Steve Swavely: Precisely.

Anna Slaydon: So Steve, one of the other things I’ve heard you talk a lot about that I wanted to make sure we talked about today is this idea about missing links. Because what we know about the research is that even though people have been talking about engagement and trying to make changes in engagement for the last decade or so, that the numbers are not showing a shift. People are trying to make changes, but it’s not showing up in the numbers. So can you tell me about why you think that is happening?

Steve Swavely: Yeah. Sure. Absolutely. And you’re absolutely right. It’s—we’ve been focusing on this for a decade now. And as you say, the shifting is just not happening. The numbers just are—they’re—they might be moving in the right direction, but they haven’t really moved significantly enough to make a difference.

And we believe there’s three reasons for that: first, a poor understanding of the concept of engagement and motivation by business leaders. We’re gonna be talking much more about that in our next session. A second related factor that I think is a important missing link is that there really is a very limited awareness of the core drivers of engagement in the work setting. Now, I mentioned that there were—there are six drivers that we’ve identified as important in engagement. Those are coming from neuroscience.

Today, neuroscience is helping us in a tremendous way, uncover, what are the important aspects of engagement? We have this technology that allows us to actually watch the brain think and process information. And that’s helping us understand little bit more about what’s going on in the brain of an engaged versus a not engaged person. And a lotta that science is now filtering down into our capacity to have impact on engagement in the work setting—some fascinating stuff. And we’ll talk more about that in session three.

And then the third missing link—I think we’ve been trying to solve the engagement problem with only half of the equation. And the experience that we gained over a decade of hindsight to reflect on, along with that information that’s coming out of neuroscience and what we’re learning about engagement, can be really helpful here. And we’re gonna discuss this missing link, that part of that engagement equation that we’ve not been paying attention to, in session four. And Anna, I think by the end of session four, that listeners are gonna have a much more accurate view of the steps needed to take engagement of their teams to the next level and, as you said at the beginning of the podcast, to really have some tools to be able to begin reaping more benefits of engagement that we’ve—that we talked about earlier today.

Anna Slaydon: That all sounds wonderful, Steve. I can’t wait to kinda process through and start unpacking more of this and finding out what we can do about it. I know next episode, you said we’ll be diving into motivation and [inaudible] some psychology and talking more about how motivation and engagement works.

Steve Swavely: Yeah, some of the misperceptions that people have about it.

Anna Slaydon: Wonderful. All right. Well, thank you so much, Dr. Steve Swavely, for joining us. Thanks to our listeners for listening. And we look forward to our next episode.

Steve Swavely: It was a pleasure being here. Thank you.

Anna Slaydon: Hey there, podcast listeners. Look for us on the web at BBTLeadershipInstitute.com for today’s show notes or for additional information about The BB&T Leadership Institute. And if you like this podcast, check out the BB&T Leadership Series, an interview series hosted by Kelly King, chairman and CEO of BB&T, featuring inspiring thought leaders like Dan Pink, John O’Leary and Shawn Achor. Watch it now at BBT.com/LeadershipSeries. Thanks again for listening. And join us for another episode of Leadership Amplitude.

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