Podcast: Leadership Amplitude Episode 3

Take a deep dive into leadership development and team optimization.

What leaders need to focus on from a very broad perspective

Listen as we set the stage for understanding the importance of drivers by discussing a concept called the “leadership ladder”. This is the idea that everything we do in the workplace exists on a continuum of task-oriented and relationship-oriented functions.


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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. Welcome back, podcast listeners. We are on episode three of the engagement series with Dr. Steve Swavely from The BB&T Leadership Institute. Welcome back, Steve.

Steve Swavely: Great to be back.

Anna Slaydon: So in our last session, we talked about one of the three missing links of employee engagement, particularly around motivation and engagement. We also talked more about conscious leadership and creating an environment that encourages and supports our six drivers of engagement. For those listeners who haven’t listened to episode two, we definitely would recommend that you listen to that. Tell us more about these six drivers.

Steve Swavely: Okay. Sure, Anna. Well, I’ll tell you, really to set the stage for understanding the importance of these drivers, I think we need to look at what leaders need to focus on from a very broad perspective first. We teach a concept called the “leadership ladder,” which is this idea that everything we do in the workplace exists on a continuum. At one end of the continuum are task-oriented functions. And these are made up of basically the technological tasks that need to be done to run the business. This would include the processes, the procedures required to create and deliver your product and so forth, and many other operational aspects of the business.

And then, Anna, at the other end of the continuum are what I call “relationship-oriented functions.” And these are made up of the people-oriented tasks. And this would include things such as building positive connections with your people, developing the people that make the business run, and really being able to get things done through other people.

Anna Slaydon: So when we say “leadership ladder,” for our listeners—and this’ll be in our show notes, but we should actually think about a ladder.

Steve Swavely: Yeah, a ladder with, at the bottom of it, a continuum of that – of that task versus relationship functions of a business that I—that I talked about.

Anna Slaydon: Gotcha.

Steve Swavely: When you’re at the bottom of that ladder, typically early in your career, maybe right after you’ve gotten out of school and you’ve started your first job, your focus is on, really, the task side of that continuum. For example, if you’re a young accountant and you’re typically given the task of doing some number crunching or if you’re a young computer programmer, you’re writing the code. Now, you still have to get along with your coworkers, get along with your boss. But for the most part, your job is task-focused and you’re really oriented over there on that side of the leadership ladder.

Anna Slaydon: So when you’re coming into work, your number one focus is getting a specific job done versus building relationships?

Steve Swavely: Exactly. That’s exactly right. But Anna, what do you think happens if you’re really good at doing those tasks?

Anna Slaydon: You move up.

Steve Swavely: Exactly. Yeah. You move up the leadership ladder. And all the sudden, you get put in charge of a project. And when that happens, there’s a shift that has to take place in your focus.

Now, you need to start getting things done through people and the focus of your efforts shift more to the relationship side of the continuum. And then of course, as you might imagine, the higher you go on that leadership ladder, from project supervisor to middle layer manager, to maybe the senior leadership team, right on up to the C-suite, the more focus of your efforts must shift to the people orientation of the business. And that’s really around building relationships in a way that increase your effectiveness of getting things done through others.

Anna Slaydon: As you move up in the company, you’re less focused on doing the specific tasks and more about managing the teams and the groups that do those specific tasks.

Steve Swavely: That’s exactly right, although sometimes people misinterpret this to mean that the tasks become less important, and that’s not the case at all. It’s the tasks remain important, but now I got to get ‘em done through other people. And you may recognize this as that concept of creating engagement.

Anna Slaydon: Absolutely. And motivation, as well, thinking back to our last episode.

Steve Swavely: Absolutely. Absolutely. And the relationship between those two, which we talked about. Three of the engagement drivers that we’ve been referring to fall on the task side of that continuum and are represented by the rational commitment axis of our engagement model, which we described in session one. And then three of those drivers fall on the relationship side of the continuum and are represented by that emotional commitment and that axis of our engagement model.

You may recall from our last session, we said that these drivers act in your brain kind of like antivirus software acts in your computer. We said they sit there in the background and then they scan the environment for threats. And they go unnoticed until a potential threat occurs and then you get some kind of “Danger,” malware or spyware message on your computer. And the same thing is true for these engagement drivers. They operate in your unconscious, scanning the environment looking for potential threats, but also looking for potential opportunities, giving you, in a sense, the signal to either approach or engage or avoid and disengage. Over time, as the employee experiences the work environment, they begin to form beliefs related to each of these drivers. And these beliefs cause the employee to either engage or disengage.

Anna Slaydon: And you were saying last episode that that occurs pretty subconsciously.

Steve Swavely: That’s right. All of that happens outside of our awareness without us even thinking about it. It’s automatic, if you will.

Anna Slaydon: Tell us a little bit more about the six engagement drivers. What are they?

Steve Swavely: Absolutely. The best way to do that is to briefly describe what each of the six drivers are scanning the environment for. And let’s start with the three task-oriented drivers. And those are clarity, control, and competence.

Now, clarity, this driver is about the clarity that your employees have about the work they’re doing and their job. Do they know what they need to do to be successful in their job and avoid failure? Do they believe they have the clarity about the direction and purpose of the team and their role on the team? It also includes beliefs about, are they informed about any changes that impact them? And the more that they can answer “yes” to those types of questions, the more engaged that they’re going to be. The less that they can answer those in a positive or affirmative way, the less engaged they are.

Anna Slaydon: So essentially, do they get it?

Steve Swavely: Yeah, exactly. “Do I know what I need to do to be successful” is really probably the most succinct way to say that. You know, Anna, the brain – I like to call it a connection-making machine. It needs to know the “why.” And without a clear “why,” what the brain does is it makes it up. And what do you think? Do you think that it makes up stuff that’s good or does it make up stuff that’s not so good?

Anna Slaydon: Thinking back about what we talked about in previous episodes about how it’s—the brain is really focused on survival a lotta the time, I would imagine that in the absence of information, it probably jumps to protect myself—

Steve Swavely: Absolutely.

Anna Slaydon: —think negative.

Steve Swavely: Absolutely. That’s spot on. And interestingly, we have five times more neuromachinery, if you will, dedicated to finding threats in the world than to seeing opportunities.

Anna Slaydon: Wow.

Steve Swavely: And that goes right to your point about survival. And what that means in the work setting is that we’re five times more likely to form negative beliefs than we are positive beliefs when faced with some ambiguous situation that we don’t understand.

Anna Slaydon: Essentially, if a leader is not actively thinking about clarity, chances are it’s going to go negatively.

Steve Swavely: That’s right. Any ambiguity is likely going to be interpreted in a negative way. And so as a leader, it’s really important to make sure that I’m providing clarity around what success looks like, what we’re trying to achieve, what the mission of the organization is, what my role is and what your role is in the organization.

Anna Slaydon: And I think that also speaks to the second driver you mentioned, which is control.

Steve Swavely: That’s right. Now, this driver’s about how much autonomy your employees believe that they have over the tasks that they have to complete as part of their job. For example, do they believe that they have the control and independence needed to do their jobs to the best of their ability? Do they believe they have input in decisions that impact them? Do they believe that they’re allowed to think and act independently? And again, the more they can answer these types of questions in the affirmative, the greater the level of engagement.

And then we have that third driver that I mentioned, competence. And this driver’s about how much a person believes that they have the appropriate skills required to accomplish their job. Levels of competence are highest when there’s a balance between the challenge presented by the job and the skill a person has to actually complete that job. That is, they believe they’re neither overqualified nor underqualified. They feel challenged by their work, but not overwhelmed by it.

Anna Slaydon: Let’s talk about the relationship drivers.

Steve Swavely: Sure. Yeah. And as I said, there’s – just like the task-oriented drivers, there’s three relationship-oriented drivers. And those are connectedness, fairness, and importance.

Anna Slaydon: Okay.

Steve Swavely: Now, connectedness, this driver’s about how much trust and affinity and rapport your employees believe to exist between themselves and you as their leader. That is, do they believe that you’re their friend or their foe? Do they believe that you make appropriate efforts to help them feel accepted and acknowledged by you or not? And do they believe that you care about them as a person and that you’ve really invested in your relationship with them?

Anna Slaydon: So it sounds like for connectedness, that is an operation that’s running in the employee’s brain and in the relationship from the time that a leader comes in and says, “Good morning,” about whether or not that person is going to say, “Good morning” back and be like, “Ugh, you’re here. This is going to be a terrible day” or if they’re excited to see their leader and excited to interact with them and continue working throughout the day with them.

Steve Swavely: Sure. Absolutely. And I would add that the research suggests that all of these drivers are running from every waking moment. You’re constantly scanning that environment looking for that – not just connectedness to your leader and the people around you, but those other things that we’ve talked about.

Anna Slaydon: So how about fairness?

Steve Swavely: Well, fairness is about how fair and just your employees believe that they and people that are important to them are being treated by you and the organization. That is, your team members perceive you as consistently treating everyone on the team in a fair manner. Do they believe that work is distributed fairly and that people are rewarded appropriately and so forth? And the more that a person feels like things are being done in a fair manner, the more engagement goes up. And the more that they feel like fairness is not happening, the more engagement drops.

Anna Slaydon: Mmm. Definitely related to connectedness, then, [crosstalk].

Steve Swavely: Absolutely. And you can see how these three fall in that relationship-oriented side of the graph. And there’s also that third driver of importance. And this is about how significant your employees believe that they are to you as the leader. Do they believe that their importance and status and standing with you are high or low?

Do they believe that you view their contributions to the team as important? Do they believe that they are treated with respect? All of these things add into that concept of feeling important or not. And again, just like all the other engagement drivers, the more that those things are moving in the positive direction, the more engagement increases. And the more that they move in the negative direction, the more that engagement falls off.

Anna Slaydon: So if – let’s say hypothetically, you’re my leader and you’re coming to talk to me, give me an assignment, talk to me about some kind of conflict or challenge in the environment. That conversation is going to go so much better and I’m going to be able to interact with you as my leader so much more if I feel like I can trust you, that you’re going to do right by me, and that I’m important to you.

Steve Swavely: That’s exactly right. Yeah. And as a leader, I have control over all six of those. It’s up to me as a leader to create that environment where people feel that they have clarity on their role in the organization, that they have that sense of control to do their job as they see fit, and that they’ve got the competencies to do that job, and that I’m connecting with them as their leader, treating people fairly, and helping them see how they fit into the organization in an important way.

Anna Slaydon: Essentially, those – the beliefs that the employee forms based on their assessment of these six factors, that is really going to have a huge impact on whether they feel engaged or they felt disengaged.

Steve Swavely: That’s exactly right. And further, these six drivers are – they’re additive and they’re prescriptive. And lemme describe what I mean by that.

Anna Slaydon: Yeah.

Steve Swavely: Imagine if you had each of these six drivers operating within every person on your team. And further imagine that as the leader, you’re giving off signals, what I call your “executive amplitude,” that we referred to in an earlier session;. That signal impacts what message is being read by each of the drivers. It’s either approach and engage or avoid and disengage. And so now, think about measuring that signal for each of the drivers on a scale of, say, 1 to 5, where 1 is, “This is a threat and I’m going to actively disengage” and 5 is an opportunity, “I’m going to actively engage.” With the six drivers, a total score of 30—that’s 5 times 6—would be full-blown active engagement, what we call—

Anna Slaydon: So that’s the devoted performer you’re talking about?

Steve Swavely: That’s right. That’s exactly right, what we’d call a “devoted performer” in our own model. And vice versa, a score of 6 for all 6 of the drivers—that’s 6 times 1, would be full-blown, active disengagement. That’s someone that, as we talked about, maybe they’ve quit, but they haven’t left.

Anna Slaydon: And they’re spreading.

Steve Swavely: That’s right, and they’re spreading their poison. And remember, we talked about that one discontent employee can infect as many as seven other employees.

Anna Slaydon: Wow.

Steve Swavely: And of course, we could have any score between that 6 and 30 for any given team member. When combined with all the other team members, this gives us an indication of the overall level of engagement for a team and it helps us see which quadrant of that engagement model that the team falls into. This is really useful information because it provides an indication of, where do we focus our efforts to improve? Do we need to focus efforts more on the task side—that’s the relational commitment axis of our engagement model—or maybe more on the relationship side, the emotional commitment axis?

Anna Slaydon: It sounds like we can’t also just assume that based on somebody’s level in the organization or on the leadership ladder, that the only needs that they have are going to be only task-oriented, that rational commitment, or only relational, that emotional commitment. There’s elements of both in every role [crosstalk].

Steve Swavely: Absolutely. And they can even be mixed. And so for example, we could have some individual engagement drivers scoring higher for the team and some lower. And Anna, this is what gives us that prescriptive capability to say, for example, “Mr. or Mrs. Leader, the scores from your team show that they believe they got great clarity about what success looks like in their job and they feel like they have a sense of autonomy over how they get there. But they don’t believe that they have the right skill set. And they don’t believe that you’re connected to them as a leader. And maybe their sense of fairness and importance, eh, they fall in the adequate range.”

What that does is it provides the leader with even more information about where to put their resources and efforts. In this case, it would be focusing on building better connections with the team and helping them to build their skillset. And this is important. Since each of the six drivers involve factors that the leader of a team or an organization has direct control over, it creates the prescription for that leader to build higher engagement in their team by creating the correct environment.

Anna Slaydon: I know for me, it’s tempting, when I’m really good at something, to just wanna pour that on. So if my team was scoring really high in clarity, like your example, then if things weren’t going well, I would be really tempted to lean into that clarity and just keep throwing clarity at it in the hopes of, “Okay. We’re already doing that well. Maybe that’ll help us get through it.” But it sounds like when we start looking at it a little bit more holistically and using some of these tools that the BB&T Leadership Institute has developed, we can actually dive a little deeper and say, “Okay. You are doing clarity really well. Let’s focus on what the actual challenges for your team are and start really targeting some strategies to build those up.”

Steve Swavely: Yeah. That’s exactly right. We know where the efforts are going to be most impactful. That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t leverage our strengths. And if we’re good for, in your example, providing clarity—and let’s say that our data indicate that people have a sense of clarity, but it could be even better. Then we can leverage that and use that and help increase engagement by leveraging our strength. But we also need to pay attention to those areas that we’re not doing a good job of and bringing those up, as well.

Anna Slaydon: Tell us about number three and what we’ll hear in our last episode of this series.

Steve Swavely: Yeah. So you’re right. We’ve discussed two of the missing links, which brings us to that third and final one, which we’ll discuss in session four. That’s about an almost exclusive focus on only half of the engagement equation for the past decade. And we’ll explore what that other half of the equation is and what you can do about it.

Anna Slaydon: Well, I’m certainly looking forward to it and know that our listeners are definitely going to be joining us for that, that missing half of the equation. Thank you again, Steve, for being with us. And we look forward to our episode four.

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 Achor. Watch it now at BBT.com/LeadershipSeries.

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