The APICS Interview | September/October 2013 | 23 | 5
Staying healthy both in and out of the workplace
Editor’s note: An expert in human behavior, business, health, and economics, Tom Rath is one of the most influential authors of the last decade. He writes and speaks on a range of topics and has authored several international best sellers, including StrengthsFinder 2.0, Strengths Based Leadership, How Full Is Your Bucket, and Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. Rath will present Monday’s general session at APICS 2013, September 29–October 1, in Orlando, Florida, USA. Here, he speaks with APICS magazine managing editor Elizabeth Rennie about strengths, weaknesses, organizational leadership, well-being, and much more. might lie so they can invest more time and energy in those places.
Rennie: In StrengthsFinder 2.0, you write that the ability to focus on one’s strengths every day is essential to success, both professionally and personally. How should people go about getting into the mind-set of making the most of their strengths rather than compensating for weaknesses?
Rath: If you think about all the things we need to do in our lives and jobs on a day-to-day basis, it’s a lot easier to make progress if you invest extra hours in the places where you already have quite a bit of natural talent. That’s where much of our research and science started. Of course, it’s important to understand your limitations and weaknesses, but people have a lot more room for growth in their areas of strength … That’s where the StrengthsFinder assessment comes in and helps people get an initial feel for where their talents might lie so they can invest more time and energy in those places.
Rennie: We often hear about the importance of possessing a myriad of different skills. Why do you believe focusing on a few specific things is more beneficial than being well-rounded?
Rath: If you spend your life trying to be a little bit good at everything, there’s no chance you’ll be great at anything. Part of it is just math. If you’re trying to be perfectly well-rounded, you just don’t have the time to dedicate to something and become truly great. And you also don’t have the same return if you’re investing hours in places where you don’t have natural talent. When we’re kids, our parents have certain expectations in our report cards, so we try to be great in every class. That’s probably the biggest challenge I see: people struggling to let go of the notion that you must be good at 10 or 15 different things.
Rennie: StrengthsFinder was a result of a massive amount of research. Can you share some details about that work?
Rath: Gallup has been studying human talent … for nearly four decades now. Over the years—through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, in particular—Gallup conducted in-depth interviews with people in hundreds of different job roles—from truck drivers to teachers, salespeople to executives and managers. And what we were trying to do was identify the different talents that make a person a good fit for a specific job role. So, when companies are hiring people, they can take an initial look and [determine if] a person would fit a management role, a sales role—or might he be better off in a teaching role? That was the original basis of the science.
In the late 1990s, a team of us at Gallup got together led by John Clifton, who is really the father of the strengths psychology. We polled some of the most dominant themes of human talent from all those hundreds of interviews and 9,000 individual questions that we asked. Could we pull this together in one assessment that could give people a holistic view of their talents as a person instead of in the context of within a job role? The result of that was StrengthsFinder, which was intended to be more a supplemental tool instead of a hiring tool—to help people see how they could make a contribution to a group, a team, a family, or whatever context they’re thinking about.
Rennie: Would you be willing to share with APICS magazine readers some of your top strengths?
Rath: Sure. My top strengths are futuristic, analytical, and intellection. I spend a great deal of time reading and looking, analyzing data, and synthesizing things for people. I get a real thrill out of thinking about what things may look like in the future. So I spend time reading about technology, gadgets, where things are headed in business. Then I use my analytical talent to distill these findings for audiences and in books.
Rennie: You have clearly embraced some of your top themes. Alternatively, have you ever encountered doubters—people who have taken the test and either disagree with or don’t like the results?
Rath: The interesting thing is that usually resolves itself pretty quickly. When someone looks at their top strengths and disagrees, the minute they go talk to their best friend or their spouse, that problem is solved. Some of those themes in the top—even if you haven’t noticed it about yourself—when you talk to your peers and your friends and family about it, in most cases, they notice these themes of talents standing out.
Also, although there are five top themes, I’ve watched leaders build huge and successful organizations by just owning and focusing on one of those. Wendy Kopp of Teach for America is a great example. I interviewed her for the strengths-based leadership book. Her top theme is achiever, and she was able to build a nationwide teacher corps in 12 months as a part of her master’s thesis. When I sat down and asked her, “How’d you get that done in 12 months when it would take most people 12 years?” she said, “Here’s my yearly to-do list. Here’s my quarterly list. Here’s my monthly list. Here’s my weekly list. Here’s today. And here’s where you are on my schedule.” It was just remarkable to me that she could take one theme and build an organization around it. So I think what matters most is that people identify with even one or two of their themes and find ways to build upon that. That’s the essence of it.
Rennie: StrengthsFinder is designed to be applied to both personal strategy and team performance. Can you explain its value for teams?
Rath: I think StrengthsFinder can be most useful for simply getting to know one another so people spend time on the things they naturally enjoy and will want to do more of. It’s an easy way to get to know each other because you have a common language. I sometimes underestimate the value of a common language when you talk about talents. For example, you might have a difficult discussion when you first bring a team together or when someone is just starting a job. There are so many different ways to talk about what you’re good at, what you’re not good at, what you’re passionate about. The big discovery from our research on teams and leaders shows that, while individuals should never really aspire to being well-rounded, great teams do need a balance of talent.
For instance, for a lot of the teams I’m on, I’m not the one who’s going to be doing a lot of the relationship-building activities—getting people together after work or some of the other social things. It’s just not a strong suit for me relative to some of the people I work with who are exceptional at that and have that talent. So we each know what we’re contributing. That’s what makes a difference: to make sure that you have the right balance of strengths around the group.
Rennie: You’ve done a lot of work on the importance of building personal relationships on the job. What are some of your most interesting findings in that area?
Rath: I’m amazed that there are still a lot of organizations out there today where managers, even if it’s unintentional, discourage people from having social relationships with one another … The benefits of encouraging people to build close relationships on the job dramatically outweigh any downsides. When I say that, I’m thinking especially about what managers need to do. Obviously, managers can’t just tell employees that they need to have better friends at work. What they can do is create environments where people know that socializing is not only welcome, but encouraged. Even subtle things like structures in the workplace that let people have open spaces to congregate, go get coffee, watch television for a bit, talk about what’s going on in the news. Those little things add up and make a difference.
Rennie: In what other areas do you feel managers have room for improvement?
Rath: The responsibility of managers is becoming more profound than it has been traditionally. I was talking to a scientist about [the manager-employee relationship] a few months ago, and he suggested that the quality of your manager may be more important to your physical health than the quality of your physician. I do think that this will prove out to be true as we do more research on the topic. Because we spend so much time at work—and because our manager is so central to the majority of our hours in the day—it’s a really powerful relationship. And it’s one that can do a lot of good or a lot of harm, particularly if the manager is not thinking about what’s best for employees’ lives and what the company needs to achieve.
Managers should be asking the question, “Do employees think their career is on a better track because they work for our company instead of a competitor?” [Managers] should really help employees think about the trajectory of their careers, think about their physical health. Companies in the United States are starting to do this out of necessity now because health care has gotten so expensive. It’s the biggest cost concern of CEOs and CFOs. Managers need to help each employee understand that they want them to have better physical health because they’re part of the company, and the company is investing in that, as well. That’s going to be a big challenge for leaders in the future.
Now, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many workers tell me they’re involved in nonprofits, community projects, and other ways of giving back because their company encourages them to and provides time to do so. So I think managers in the next 10 years are going to have to continue proving a much more holistic value proposition, instead of relying on the basic bribes of pay and benefits, to keep people engaged in a job.
Rennie: In Strengths Based Leadership, you investigated the most meaningful leaders people have followed and the common characteristics. What did you learn?
Rath: Instead of imposing our own ideas or hunches about what leadership is about, we went out and asked tens of thousands of followers … about the person who had had the most positive impact on their lives. We said, “Think about just one person,” and we asked them to list three words that describe what that leader contributed to their lives. I didn’t know if it would work—just asking people for random, off-the-cuff words. But the consistency of the words people used was remarkable … When we asked people for specific words, “honesty” and “trust” were often first. If you don’t trust someone, there’s absolutely no chance of having a good relationship.
Another element we found was real, genuine caring and compassion … If employees believe their managers care about them as people, that’s a very powerful predictor of future outcomes for the individuals and the business. Managers flat-out have to care. I was at a summit a couple of years ago where we had the best managers from around the country gathered, and one man stood up and said, “It’s simple to me. I see my people as an end itself, not a means to an end.” It’s that type of mentality that differentiates great managers from the rest.
The third thing we heard people talk about was needing stability in the moment. So, it’s helping people understand that things are stable and the rug won’t be pulled out from under them on a day’s notice. With all the change going on in corporate environments today, that’s a tough thing for managers to do.
The fourth thing we heard was people want hope for the future. They need you to help them see how things will build and get better three years from now, five years from now. I think about these last two elements—stability and hope—and, boy, that’s a tough balancing act for managers in today’s workplace. You need to let people know that things are stable now, while painting a picture of how the future will be even better. That is a fundamental challenge of leading.
Rennie: If an employee asked you to share your most surprising discovery relating to job satisfaction and success, what would that be?
Rath: I’ll give you the most recent thing that really surprised me as a researcher. Over the years, we’ve studied all these categories of how people are engaged in their jobs: They’re either really happy and contributing—the most productive; not engaged, which is the dominant group—they think their job is OK and are in the middle range in terms of productivity; and then what we call “actively disengaged”—those are people who are really dissatisfied with their jobs, and it’s taking a toll on their lives.
So, while Gallup has been conducting that research, at the same time, psychologists around the world have been looking at the impact of unemployment and compared it to some of life’s most traumatic events, such as the death of a spouse. And what’s interesting from all the psychological research is that people are extremely resilient and tend to bounce back about a year later, no matter how bad the circumstance. That’s the encouraging part. Now, the one major exception to that rule has been sustained unemployment. Being unemployed for 6-to-12 months takes a hit on your well-being that continues to last as far out as researchers have measured, which is five years.
I had always assumed—and this was even in the first chapter of the well-being book—that sustained unemployment is the single-worst circumstance. But a study came out in the last six months showing that people who are in a job, but actively disengaged—they don’t like their work team, they don’t like their manager—have lower well-being than people who are actually unemployed. That’s the most surprising thing I’ve seen in a while: A bad job may be worse for you than no job at all.
Rennie: If someone is in this kind of bad situation, what should be done to fix it?
Rath: If you’re in a place where you have a manager who you think is terrible—who you deeply dislike, and you know that circumstance is not going to change soon despite any efforts you’ve made—then you’ve got a responsibility to your health and well-being to try to find something else as quickly as you possibly can. I’m amazed by medical studies out of Europe that show that people who’ve had bosses they really dislike for 20 or 30 years are 33 percent more susceptible to heart disease and stroke. Individuals have to take responsibility.
Now, at the organizational end, leaders need to have a system in place to measure the well-being of employees. If you have a manager who consistently has employees whose engagement tends to go down or a large segment is actively disengaged, then that manager should not be in a managerial role if that situation persists.
Rennie: What can APICS 2013 attendees look forward to during your general session in Orlando?
Rath: I spent a lot of time in the last few months reflecting on some of the most fundamental things managers and leaders can do each day to drive outcomes, productivity, and the like—and to make a profound contribution to the lives of the people who look to them for leadership. Attendees will learn what makes for effective workplaces and, in particular, effective management.
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