Podcast: Leadership Amplitude Episode 2

Take a deep dive into leadership development and team optimization.

Engagement and motivation is of interest to everyone

Even though we use the term “engagement“ and “motivation” interchangeably, they can be very different. We discuss the missing link of inaccurate understanding of engagement and motivation and how a business leader can better understand them.


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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 again by Dr. Steve Swavely from The BB&T Leadership Institute. Good morning, Steve. How are you?

Steve Swavely: Doing well today. Thank you.

Anna Slaydon: Wonderful. So Steve, on our last episode, you helped us understand what is engagement and why should we care about it? Particularly, one of the things that I think stood out to me is understanding that a third of the workforce is this actively engaged status, where they’re high-producing, they’re passionate about what they’re doing. But then there’s half of the workforce that we call “not engaged.” And they are going through the motions. And then we have a fifth of the workforce that is actively disengaged. They are actively not going through the motions.

Steve Swavely: Yeah.

Anna Slaydon: They’re—

Steve Swavely: That’s a good way to say it.

Anna Slaydon: They’re negatively impacting the workforce. And then you helped us understand that this might be due to these three missing links, so poor understanding of what engagement is and motivation and the role of motivation by business leaders. The second one was poor awareness of the actual drivers of engagement. And then the third was working with only half of the equation to solve the engagement puzzle, really diving into that missing concept there. So I was hoping that this episode, we’d talk more about that missing link number one, which is that inaccurate understanding of engagement and motivation and how a business leader can better understand that. So can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Steve Swavely: Sure. Anna, it’s interesting. When someone learns what I do for a living, if that person happens to be in a leadership or a management role, the question they almost always eventually get to is, “So Steve, what could you tell me about how can I motivate my people?” Or when I’m working with clients and maybe I’m asking them about, “What are your objectives for a leadership development program that we’re putting together,” I can almost always count on hearing something like, “Well, we want to learn how to better motivate our teams.” 

Anna Slaydon: Yeah. That makes sense.

Steve Swavely: Sure. And so it’s of interest to everybody. Engagement and motivation is of interest to everyone. And there’s an undeniable relationship between motivation and engagement, but they are different. Engagement involves a person wanting to do something, really being committed to it.

And motivation can be that, too, but motivation can also have this element of someone having to do something, being compliant. When most business leaders are asking, “How do I motivate my people,” what they’re really asking is, “How do I engage my people?” They’re looking for committed team members that are actively engaged as we described in our last session, not just compliant employees who would fall more into that not engaged group.

Anna Slaydon: It sounds like what you’re saying is that even though we use the term “engagement” and “motivation” interchangeably, that they—in this space, they can be very, very different.

Steve Swavely: That’s exactly right. And I think a lot of business leaders make the mistake of equating motivation with engagement. What psychology has taught us about those is that both of those are internal states. The reality is you can’t motivate or engage anyone other than yourself. What business leaders can do is that they can create an environment that encourages and supports engagement. Now, to do that, it takes superb leadership skills, especially in today’s fast-paced, volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and frequently ambiguous business world. Superior leadership is clearly the key, but it’s not necessarily in the way that many leaders think about.

Anna Slaydon: How does a leader become superior and what does that do with engagement?

Steve Swavely: Yeah. What do I mean by “superior leadership skills,” right?

Anna Slaydon: Yeah, exactly.

Steve Swavely: Well, I think to answer that question, Anna, we really need to start with the definition of leadership as we talk about it at The BB&T Leadership Institute. Our definition is that leadership is the art and science of creating an environment that inspires employees to implement critical strategies consistent with an organization’s beliefs and values. Now, I know that’s a lot of words, but there are a couple parts of that definition that I’d like to expand on that I think will give the listeners a better understanding of it and also help answer your question. First, you’ll notice the term “inspires” in our definition. Doesn’t say it “manipulates” employees or “makes” employees or “forces” employees. It’s inspiring them.

Anna Slaydon: Which is a much more positive term.

Steve Swavely: Absolutely, much more positive. And as you pointed out earlier, it’s emotional, right? Think back to our engagement model that we discussed in podcast one and the importance of the emotional commitment factor that is a part of that model. Then there’s the acknowledgment in our definition that the role of the leader is to create an environment. Science has taught us that that’s all we can really do need to engage or motivate people. We can’t do it for them, but we can create an environment that inspires them to do the work of the business.

Anna Slaydon: So you can’t make ‘em, but you can help them find it themselves?

Steve Swavely: That’s exactly right. And the only way to do that is through environments that we create for people as leaders. One of the most important parts of our definition is the part about the art and the science. This is about being intuitive versus intentional in your leadership. The intuitive piece is kind of the art side of our definition.

Some people just have some leadership skills and capacities naturally. They’re born with them. You probably can think about people that were natural born leaders that you know in your own life. They naturally connect with people or they have the capacity to empathize with others.

But Anna, we also clearly know that leadership can be taught. And that’s the science piece, what we can learn about how to be a better leader that we can apply consciously or intentionally. So that art and science piece, those pieces are not—they’re not mutually exclusive. Most leaders have aspects of the intuitive or art side of the equation and the learned side or the science of leadership. Of those two, though, the one that we can impact in training programs most readily is that science piece, to create what we call “conscious leadership,” leading intentionally.

Anna Slaydon: I just want to backtrack a little bit because what I loved about that, the definition and how you explored that, was that there’s this acknowledgment of yes, there are people in the world that are just naturally gifted leaders; and if you’re not one, that doesn’t mean you can’t become one.

Steve Swavely: Absolutely. There’s clear evidence that we can teach leadership, but it’s not necessarily what people are thinking about when we talk about teaching leadership. Conscious leadership is about intentionally creating that environment that inspires engagement in your team. In order to do that, you have to overcome, really, two pretty formidable obstacles.

First of those is you have to avoid sending mixed signals as a leader. And this requires deep levels of self-awareness, which is, at its core, what we teach at The BB&T Leadership Institute. And it’s really what I was referring to when I said it’s—developing that superior leadership capability is not what people think. It’s not about learning techniques and tools necessarily. It’s more about learning about yourself.

Anna Slaydon: Mm-hmm.

Steve Swavely: And Anna, there’s a concept that’s called “executive amplitude.” And amplitude, it’s a—it’s a physics term that describes the strength of a signal being given off. And executive amplitude is about what signals are you sending off as a leader, whether you’re aware of them or not, whether they’re intentional or not. The fact is you’re always sending off signals as a leader and your team are always reading and responding to them.

And the question is, are you sending signals that support engagement and say it’s safe to approach and engage? Or as a leader of a team or an organization, are you sending signals that say it’s not safe to approach, it’s better to disengage? As a leader, you can’t even begin to be most effective if you’re sending out mixed signals, if you’re saying one thing and doing another. So for example, you can’t talk about being a caring and empathetic leader and then derail yourself when stress levels rise and you become abrasive or sarcastic with your team.

Anna Slaydon: Oh, yeah. Employees see through that.

Steve Swavely: Absolutely, right away. And I see this all the time in leaders who they attempt to lead by using some tactic or strategy that they learned in a workshop somewhere, but they lack that self-awareness needed to apply those tools in the consistent and empathetic manner in which they were really intended to be utilized.

Anna Slaydon: Ah, okay.

Steve Swavely: There’s an old saying that it’s easy to lead when the waters are calm. That’s so true. If a leader hasn’t done the deep self-reflection and really understand what makes him or her tick, especially when they’re under stress and things aren’t going as planned, all the positive leadership tools in the world aren’t gonna do much to help ‘em.

Anna Slaydon: Totally agree with that because when I’m under stress, I’m less likely to emotionally take a step back and rationally think, “Okay. I went to that workshop and this is what I was taught to do if I’m in crisis.” I’m more likely to just immediately react to it. And sometimes that doesn’t really go all that well.

Steve Swavely: Yeah, very true. And a lot of the tools that people learn in leadership programs are only implemented most effectively when the leader is calm and they’re managing their own behavior. And that’s what can get in the way of implementing those tools that people learn. And the only way to really avoid that is to have done some deep interpersonal analysis to understand not only how you respond under stress, but also why you respond that way.

Anna Slaydon: So what’s motivating that knee-jerk reaction?

Steve Swavely: Exactly right. Yes. And without that knowledge, it’s really difficult, if not impossible, to be a conscious leader, to lead intentionally. Because what we have to do is—to be a superior leader, we’ve gotta lead ourselves first. We gotta manage our own behavior before leading others.

And without that self-awareness, we’re really destined for mediocrity at best, and to struggle to create an environment that encourages and supports engagement like we’re trying to do. And I would say that The BB&T Leadership Institute is really well known for being exceptional in helping leaders develop that deep self-awareness that creates a conscious leader. And we do this through some really powerful reflection tools and techniques.

Anna Slaydon: So I know that you said that there were two obstacles. And we talked about the first being sending these mixed signals or just not having a self-awareness of what signals you’re sending out.

Steve Swavely: That’s right.

Anna Slaydon: What’s our second obstacle?

Steve Swavely: The second obstacle to overcome is to know, what is it you’re attempting to consciously create? What I mean by that is, what does an environment that inspires engagement really look like? And this is where neuroscience can help us tremendously and give leaders who understand and apply that science a real competitive advantage. This science centers on what are known as motivational brain networks, which I know that’s a pretty clunky term. And sometimes when I see business leaders’ eyes begin to glaze over if I get too technical with the neuroscience, I know I’ve gone too deep. So one of the things we’ve done at The BB&T Leadership Institute is we just refer to them as the engagement drivers.

And I think the important thing to recognize there is that these engagement drivers, they weren’t just six things that we sat down and said, “Well, these look really good. They—these should help improve engagement.” They’re really coming outta the neuroscience that helps us understand what engages people. What are the systems that the brain’s involved with when it comes to engaging themselves? As we discussed in session one, there are six of them. Three of those engagement drivers fall on the rational axis and three of them fall on that emotional axis. And each of the six drivers are acting in your brain kind of like antivirus software acts in your computer.

Anna Slaydon: That program that’s just hanging out in the back of my computer and it’s always running, but I’m not really aware of it?

Steve Swavely: That’s exactly right. Yeah. It’s—they’re operating in your brain at an unconscious level, sitting there in the background, scanning for threats. And you don’t even know it’s there until a problem pops up. That’s true for these engagement drivers. They operate in your unconscious, again, looking for potential threats. But also, unlike your antivirus software in your computer, these drivers are also looking for potential opportunity.

And again, these drivers, they’re not parts of the brain, but they’re systems within the brain. Anna, as complex as the brain is—it’s often described as the most complex system known in the universe—it really only has one primary function, and that’s to make a decision to approach, engage, or avoid, disengage. That’s it. All other functions of the brain, from motor control to memory, complex problem-solving capabilities, abstract reasoning, all those things are designed to contribute to helping make that decision, engage and get a reward or avoid, disengage, and escape some threat.

If a leader sends out a signal that is one of sarcasm or abrasiveness, that’s a threat response and that causes people to disengage. It’s one of things that I see particularly in leaders that have been in leadership positions for a long period of time. They forget that their team is watching them and evaluating them when—as a leader, you have a bad hair day, your people know about it whether you think they do or not. And they’re reacting. And that’s part of that environment that you’re creating.

Anna Slaydon: Even if you’re reacting to something that has nothing to do with them, they’re still consuming the output of that and applying it to themselves?

Steve Swavely: Yeah. And thus the need for that deep self-awareness to understand, what makes me tick under times of stress and how do I manage that better?

Anna Slaydon: Gotcha. So if having a bad hair day really does bring you down, that you are armed with that information so that you can conscious—the—that term, “consciously lead,” so consciously make decisions so that that’s not the message you send out to everybody else.

Steve Swavely: Exactly right, or at least that you limit the times that that happens. And of course, when—whatever message that you’re sending out is creating that environment that’s contributing to those six drivers. And we’re gonna dive into those six drivers and explain them in much more detail in our next session.

Anna Slaydon: I’m so excited, Steve. Thank you so much for joining us. Again, Dr. Steve Swavely from The BB&T Leadership Institute. Tune in to our next episode. We’re gonna dive into those six drivers and start applying those.

Thanks again for listening. Thanks again, Steve, for being with us. We look forward to having you next episode.

Steve Swavely: 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 Anchor. Watch it now at BBT.com/LeadershipSeries.

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