Podcast: Leadership Amplitude Episode 4

Take a deep dive into leadership development and team optimization.

The missing link

The employee equation that’s often ignored. Employees have to take some responsibility for the nature of the culture and environment of the organization.


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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 to episode four of our employee engagement series, where we are talking with Dr. Steve Swavely from The BB&T Leadership Institute about the missing links in employee engagement. In episode one, we talked about an overview of engagement: what is it, why does it matter? In episode two, we talked about motivation and engagement. Episode three, we dove into the six drivers of engagement and how those can be used to form a prescriptive approach to positively impacting the work environment. And so episode four is focusing on the final missing link. I know in our last episode, you talked about there is a whole half of the employee equation that’s often ignored. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Steve Swavely: I think this missing link comes from some of the most powerful findings that came outta that Gallup study that we talked about in session one. And basically, that research really reinforced, rightfully so, the importance of the leader’s role in creating engagement or disengagement among employees.

Anna Slaydon: So going back to that motivation and the six drivers, that there’s a lot that a leader can control in there?

Steve Swavely: Absolutely. And as you may remember—you remember what the number one reason employees identified as the reason that they weren’t engaged?

Anna Slaydon: That relationship with their manager.

Steve Swavely: Exactly. Yeah, bad relationship with the boss. And so to a large degree, what’s been ignored since this research was first published was the employee’s role in completing that engagement puzzle. All the focus has really been on the leader. And I’m a firm believer that any attempt at addressing engagement really needs to include the employee in the form of what we call “owning their career.”

Anna Slaydon: Mmm. Okay.

Steve Swavely: And the idea here is that employees, just by being part of the organization, are contributing to the culture and the environment of the team and the organization. And so they have to take some responsibility for the nature of that culture and that environment. I believe it’s fair to ask, what can the employee be doing to engage themselves? What’s their role for increasing engagement? And this is part of what “owning your career” really means.

There’s a person named Marshall Goldsmith who was one of the very first executive coaches. In fact, I think he was doing executive coaching before “executive coaching” was even a term. And he did some fascinating research that looked at how employees can engage themselves. And the study involved encouraging employees to ask what he called “active questions” versus “passive questions” as related to their own engagement.

Anna Slaydon: So these would be active questions that they would ask themselves?

Steve Swavely: Yeah. It’s—both active and passive questions are questions that people ask themselves, but it’s really referring to the focus of the question.

Anna Slaydon: Okay.

Steve Swavely: So passive questions are those that focus on what others, such as your boss—or what your company can do to make a positive difference for you. And this, as you might imagine, promotes a passive approach, expecting someone else to take responsibility for your engagement.

Anna Slaydon: Okay. So that would mean that an active question is more focused on what I as the employee could do.

Steve Swavely: Exactly. Exactly right. Active questions focus on what you can do to make a positive difference for yourself. And by asking yourself these questions, it promotes an action that supports building your own engagement. And in the study, what Goldsmith did is he had his employees take two minutes—that’s all, just two minutes—at the end of each workday and ask themselves a series of six questions that went something like, “What did I do today that helped me build my satisfaction at work? What did I do today that helped me clear up a question that I had about a problem I was experiencing? What did I do today to help me be better at my job,” and so forth.

Anna Slaydon: Sounds like it’s going back to that driver of control.

Steve Swavely: You can see some of those connections there in the questions that relate right back to the drivers of engagement. Now, Marshall Goldsmith was doing this intuitively because he really wasn't working with the six drivers. But he was working with what he knew intuitively makes a difference in engagement in the workplace. Now, he had the employees do this, what you might call the two-minute drill, for a period of two weeks. And then they journaled their own responses. And the results were really impressive. At first, the answers to these questions were typically, “Well, I didn’t do anything today. I didn’t do anything that helped me build my satisfaction at work” or “I didn’t do anything today that helped me gain better clarity on a question that I had.”

However, after 2 weeks of this exercise, participants showed steady improvement. And in fact, at the end of 2 weeks, 37% showed improvement on positive actions on all 6 of the areas tapped by the questions. 65% improved on at least 4. 89% improved on at least 1. 1% showed no improvement. And only 1% showed any kind of negative change.

Anna Slaydon: That’s amazing. Just two minutes of focusing on what they could do made such a positive improvement.

Steve Swavely: Yeah, very impressive. And here’s the really interesting thing that I think all leaders can appreciate. All of that was implemented with zero cost to the organization.

Anna Slaydon: Wow. Why did those results happen like that? What was going on?

Steve Swavely: Well, I think part of the answer is that by asking the six questions at the end of each day, it helped those employees recognize that they were, in fact, being passive and perhaps missing opportunities to grow their own job satisfaction. While asking the active questions prompted them to begin looking for ways that they could act that would allow them to give a more positive response to each question at the end of the day.

There’s a psychological concept behind this idea. It’s called the “broaden and build” theory. It’s this idea that when we focus on positive aspects of our world, what we pay attention to begins to broaden. It expands and we begin to see opportunities that were right there in front of us the whole time, but we’re missing because we just weren’t looking for them. And once we begin to act on those opportunities, we make additional connections that open up even further opportunity. And by combining Goldsmith’s two-minute drill with the six engagement drivers, employees can have a huge impact on their own engagement as well as that of the organizational culture. And they can do this by creating a habit of asking themselves six questions at the end of each day that tap into each of the engagement drivers.

Anna Slaydon: So if you were to recommend what those six questions would look like, what would you encourage employees and leaders to start asking themselves?

Steve Swavely: Well, let’s think about the three relationship-oriented drivers, that of connectedness and fairness and importance. Those three questions would be, “What did I do today that helped me build my relationship with my manager? What did I do today to ensure the way I do my job is fair to everyone I work with? And what did I do today to make myself even more important to my manager or the organization?”

And the drivers that are on the task-oriented side, clarity control and competence—and the three questions around those would be, “What did I do today to help myself gain clarity around an issue that I was uncertain about? What did I do today to expand my own sphere of influence or control over my job? What did I do today to build my skills and increase my competency for the job that I do or the job that I want?” And as you can see, by asking yourself what you did each day to help move each of these drivers towards the positive direction for yourself, this could be really life-changing. Think about it. What career wouldn’t be improved by someone acting in ways that those six questions would prompt you to act?

Anna Slaydon: Being able to get that feedback from your manager, as well, as an employee, to be able to say, “What could I be doing tomorrow that would build my relationship or increase my own fairness or be more clear”—having that conversation with your leader would definitely be a way to even take that a step further, as well.

Steve Swavely: I would agree with that. That’s—that, right there, is building connectedness with your leader that you’re initiating, that you’re taking responsibility for. And Anna, I think it’s really important to, as Goldsmith says, understand that this—it’s pretty simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. It’s simple to ask yourself those questions, but acting on those questions, well, that’s where the rubber meets the road and that’s not necessarily the easy part.

And I would further add that as a leader, there’s a very important caveat to trying this exercise with your own team, and that is that you definitely don’t want to put this into action until, as a leader, you have created an action plan around your own role in creating engagement, you’ve shared that with your team, and you’ve implemented it. Remember, the Gallup study clearly identified the leader’s actions as a critical factor in employee engagement. And addressing those have to come first before enlisting your team to participate and do their part, what I would call the other half of that employee engagement equation.

Anna Slaydon: So almost like the leader has to take the first steps, meet them halfway first, and then create this environment of motivation so that they’ll feel safe and they’ll feel ready to start making some positive changes themselves?

Steve Swavely: That’s right.

Anna Slaydon: Steve, thank you so much for joining us and helping us to understand engagement in a new way, especially those missing links that are just not out there, aren’t readily available. Our next series is going to be with Chuck Gaskin. And we’re going to be focusing on talent development, which I think you teed up really well, talking about owning your career and really asking those questions, which—you started out every one of those six questions with, “What did I do today,” and that, to your point, is all about owning your career. So Chuck is going to help us dive more into that talent development and really taking those next steps in that relationship with associates and employees. So thank you for teeing that up for us. We’re so glad to have you with us. And we look forward to having you again in the future.

Steve Swavely: I’ll look forward to it.

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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