Employee Happiness Vs. Engagement: Rodd Wagner Interview, Part 2

Guest Contributorby David Zinger | Posted | Engagement

Employee Happiness Vs. Engagement: Rodd Wagner Interview, Part 2

This is part 2 of an interview with Rodd Wagner, a prolific author on work, employee engagement and leadership. You can read the first part of my interview with Rodd here. Rodd Wagner is a skilled and informative writer on employee engagement, work, and leadership. He is a columnist and author of books on leadership and collaboration. His last book was Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees as If They're Real People.

Before we begin, here is part of the conclusion from Rodd's Forbes article, Now More Than Ever, Employees Want To Know: Is There A Second Marshmallow?:

"It may be impossible for most companies today to promise a bright future at those organizations. But if nothing else, an organization needs to see the potential in its people as much as it sees the potential in the firm itself. Its leaders and managers need to be deliberate in developing their employees and giving them the kinds of credentials that will allow them to build their futures somewhere, even if it's somewhere else."

What can managers/leaders do to keep their own engagement and experience of work strong?

That depends a lot on the person and the situation in which she or he finds himself. But speaking broadly, most Americans are wound too tightly. We don't get enough sleep or exercise. We leave vacation days on the table. We read work emails on our phones when we should be relaxing with the kids or the dog. Leaders and managers tend to be some of the worst offenders.

Beyond those factors within someone's control, a lot depends on the environment. One's choice of employer is a strategic decision for which no combination of tactical decisions can compensate.

I talked recently with an executive I met long ago when he was working at one of America's least admired and most troubled companies. He's a good person and he was working diligently to support the people who depended on him. A couple years later, he escaped to one of the country's most admired and ethical firms. When I caught up with him sometime after he'd made the switch, I could not believe the difference in his tone of voice.

Great managers, just like great non-supervisory employees, deserve to work at organizations where the leaders are genuinely invested in their happiness.

In an article, you stated: "Engagement is what the employer wants; happiness is what the employee wants. Yet the two are so highly correlated (0.78 to 0.85 for the statisticians in the crowd) that it is nearly impossible to be engaged and not happy at work or happy on the job and not engaged." Elaborate on how you see the connection between happiness and engagement.

This is where my journalist's allergy to consultant-speak kicks in. "Engagement" is not the way regular people talk about their jobs. When you see your uncle at Thanksgiving, he doesn't ask, "How engaged are you at your job?" He asks something such as, "Are you happy at the new job?"

Any time I've tested terms such as "satisfaction," "happiness," "enjoyment," and "love my job" with the traditional metrics we've come to associate in strategy sessions with "engagement," the statistical overlap has been huge, meaning we're either measuring the same thing or two very closely related concepts.

The takeaway is that if a company wants people to stay, to work hard, to speak well of the company, and to give great customer service-typical "engagement" outcomes-it should simply focus on trying to make those employees happy.

What are your hopes and fears about working as we move towards the year 2020?

In the next few years, I'm most concerned about trade tensions bringing on or worsening a downturn. If the last recession taught us anything, it's that the economy skates on fairly thin ice.

Attention to employee happiness rises and falls with the economy. Many companies are falling over themselves now to treat their most in-demand employees very well, just as they did in 2005, 2006, and 2007. But if the economy tanks, we'll once again hear too many managers tell employees, "If you don't like the working conditions here, I've got résumés from a dozen people who will gladly endure them."

You dedicate your book Widgets to your daughter, Noelle. What does Noelle need to know to have a successful and positive experience of working?

Noelle is our oldest and her career is off to a great start. I don't think I have anything else I can teach her. She has it dialed in. In fact, the tables have turned, and she's more likely to be advising me. She read the manuscript of Widgets and suggested a number of important improvements.

One of the cool experiences I did not anticipate when she was growing up was commiserating about travel logistics when she's on the road in D.C. and I'm traveling in Portland, Oregon.

What are you currently most curious about work and leadership?

I am most curious (and concerned) about where our political situation takes us. I believe we're at a point where some of the fundamental assumptions about the free market system, the implicit contract between employees and companies, and the rule of law are fraying. There seems to be a this-isn't-working-so-let's-wreck-the-place attitude coming from numerous factions.

Having co-authored a book on collaboration, it frustrates me to see the increased polarization of attitudes and demonizing of those with whom we previously would have found common ground. I find it fascinating that Russian interference on social media with the U.S. election was not so much targeted at supporting one side or the other, but on winding up both sides against the other.

More than oil prices or interest rates or employee engagement scores, this is the overarching issue. A political pendulum that swings erratically is not good for business or the people who deserve to earn a good living through their hard work.

Is there anything else you'd like to say before we finish this interview?

Perhaps we should take a stab at ending on a deep note.

A couple years ago, I spoke about employee happiness at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. I got to meet some of the cool people who manage the Hubble Space Telescope and were building the James Webb Space Telescope. Last summer, my oldest son talked me into driving us across Iowa to see the total eclipse. The combination of these events made me realize how really, really small we are in a mind-blowingly large universe. It changed my perspective about life and about work.

I believe too often we allow ourselves to get caught up in the details at work when the most important issues are keeping each other safe and healthy, learning to collaborate well, helping people reach their potential, forgiving mistakes along the way, and having some fun together during the limited time we get.

The most important paragraph in Widgets runs parallel to this idea:

"The measure of one's life, according to many philosophies, whether religious or not, is how you treat other people while you're on this planet. None of those creeds include the opt-out clause ‘except when you're at work.'"

This is the end of part two of the interview. In case you missed it, you can find part one of my interview with Rodd here. I encourage you to read Widgets. To learn more about Rodd, visit him on LinkedIn or read his Forbes columns.

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Cover of the book

Employee Engagement Center of Excellence

All the resources you\'ll ever need on employee engagement in one place.

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