David Harder on employee engagement: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

In 1990, David Harder founded Inspired Work, dedicated to helping individuals transform their relationship to work. Today, Inspired Work has over 43,000 graduates from all walks of life.

Harder has served as a change agent in a wide variety of organizations including The Walt Disney Company, HBO, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Loyola Marymount University, University of Southern California, The United Church of Religious Science, Morgan Stanley, Smith Barney, Baxter Healthcare, The Art Institute of America and many others. Inspired Work’s engagement, leadership, career development and learning programs produce some of the worlds most outstanding satisfaction numbers in any business: 92.6% out of a hundred. David’s articles are syndicated online and reach over 6 million readers. He is a popular keynote speaker regarding human capital, change, and careers in the future of work.

His latest book, The Workplace Engagement Solution: Find a Common Mission, Vision and Purpose with All of Today’s Employees, was published by Career Press (August 2017)., describes how to build the skills that support engagement and personal change in all workers, from beginners to CEOs.

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For those who have not as yet read The Workplace Engagement Solution, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP.


First, when and why did you decided to write it?

For many years, graduates of our Inspired Work Program introduced us to their employers. We deliver leadership, sales and executive development program that use much of the philosophy from the first program but are tailored for organizational use. Most employers were afraid to use The Inspired Work Program for everyone. God forbid, if people connect with their truth and define what they want out of life, they’ll all leave. But, the waves of change led to that point where creating that kind of awakening in all workers became practical and attractive. When people wake up to their own mission. When leaders learn how to find their stakeholder’s needs and expectations. When people articulate mission, vision, and purpose, engagement becomes visceral and real. All too often, employers default to shareholder value as the mission, vision, and purpose for all.

How many workers open their eyes in the morning and think, “What I really want to do is increase shareholder value today?” When we began delivering the program to intact teams employee engagement rocketed upwards in feedback surveys. You could walk into an environment and feel the difference. For the vast majority of the participants work is no longer a job, it is a platform that fulfills the lives we want. People define those lives and speak up. They help each other. Leaders are able to harass that energy. The alternative, the old idea that threatening an employee’s predictability and survival, no longer works.

Witnessing these breakthroughs brought up the question with our colleagues, “How do we change organizations to sustain these improvements?” It became clear that change needs to take place at every level of an organization as well as its vendors. For example, consulting organizations treat engagement as a chronic illness and they tend to only hold executive leadership responsible. Real engagement is a democratic process. In other words, everyone has to be responsible. The question became, “How do we create across-the-board accountability?”

It also became clear that the real problem with disengagement began in the 70’s when we created organization imbalance by making shareholder value more important than long-term improvement and growth. We need CEOs who understand that if they are going to have long term abundance, that we need to make the quality and wakefulness of our talent a priority. It became clear that organizations need a simplified and yet caring approach to engagement. This state cannot be sustained by outsiders. There was a tipping point where I made a commitment to my publisher to actually offer up a solution.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

One of the head snapping revelations was interviewing Adam Miller, the CEO of Cornerstone on Demand. I wrote a chapter entitled, “What is an Engagement CEO?” It outlines the characteristics and behaviors that CEOs must adopt if they are committed to a fully engaged organization. We identified a wide variety of executives who had most of the characteristics. I put out word to our community asking if anyone knew a CEO who demonstrated all of these characteristics.

Three highly credible individuals knew Adam. The interview was neck snapping because he naturally spoke about each behavior and commitment with no prompting. The results speak for themselves. Cornerstone on Demand is a category leader, growing and sailing past the competition. It is a tech giant with little turnover and it is filled with brilliant, energize and deeply invested workers.

I sent out portions of the book to CEOs and Chief Human Resource executives for feedback. I loved their feedback. But, what surprised me the most was how emotional they became about this message. People really want to be engaged. There is a core within all of us that wants to grow and thrive and change and learn. Their feedback made me realize that we had more than a “how-to” message here, we had something that captures the heart, mind, and soul. That was very moving for me.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

I began writing the book with a commitment to offer readers a solution to employee engagement. I had most of that solution when it began. But, the title represented a level of integrity that required going for it. The journey took me into unexpected territory. For example, creating a self-sustaining mentorship culture pushed me to study Alcoholics Anonymous, which charges no fees and has no organized leadership and structure. There, I discovered that what makes this organization so powerful is that mentors are the early adopters and their excellence is recognized by the people who want to build the needed skills. In essence, this is very simple and powerful. But, it is also quite counter to the hierarchical ways we treat leadership and people development.

I also found that CEOs like Adam Miller from Cornerstone and Kim Shepherd from Decision Toolbox were some of the people that gave me so much endorsement and support, that I gained the courage to finish a real solution.

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which positive and productive employee engagement is most likely to thrive?

Engaged workers will always select organizations that are filled with engagement. For example, if you are a fresh tech grad from Stanford, would you work at Facebook or Yahoo?

If you are looking for a position, the most important question to answer is, “Who is the boss?” If your boss is disengaged, you are not going to be having a growth experience. I have a number of individual chief human resource officer clients. If one of them tells me their CEO won’t take charge of the culture, I tell them to keep their bags packed. The CEO must lead the culture.

I’m doing my best to distill in a few sentences what is taken up by many chapters. But finally, it is time for organizations to restructure the financial context of employee engagement. As long as engagement is treated as an expense rather than a source of profit, it becomes expendable.

My own opinion that an organization’s hiring and onboarding processes can have a significant impact, for better or worse, on a workplace culture’s values. What do you think?

You will find in my chapter on right fit that a team of human capital leaders outlined the mediocrity that is taking place with hiring and on boarding practices. During the last ten years, many leaders were pre-occupied with getting through the recession. But, they didn’t realize how much change had happened. Today, there is growing transparency in between an organization and the available talent pool. The transparency that is growing due to the availability of information will force organizations to make big changes in their hiring practices. The word is out. And, any candidate who isn’t making use of the information is shooting themselves in the foot.

What are the most common misconceptions about employee engagement. What, in fact, is true?

The biggest misconception is that employee engagement is about people feeling better about themselves and what they do. Employee engagement is about being awake, of actually becoming alarmed when we realize we are “going through the motions.” It is about removing the trance that consumes so many because they are well, in a trance.

Some of the larger consulting firms in the engagement field will no longer work with an organization where the CEO isn’t taking responsibility for engagement. This commitment is compromised regularly. But, we need the CEO or owner to be in charge because real engagement requires real change. We cannot settle for change of policy. No. We need change on a vast individual level. This is the real challenge and we cannot settle for less. Individual workers, as a tribe, don’t commit to this level of change when they see a CEO who is giving it lip service but conducting her or himself with “business as usual.”

In your opinion, how best to obtain buy-in for employee engagement improvement initiatives among those who are either Passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively engaged in undermining their company’s success?

People need to see positive results within themselves and others. For example, when we start delivery at a large organization we focus on taking a few high profile intact teams through the program as well as offering the program on an open enrollment basis to leaders. Growing a change initiative requires positive word of mouth. Without it? People are so frenzied they show up to development programs with a chip on their shoulder. What happens to those that come and continue to mail it in? About 5-8% of our organizational participants leave within the first 60 days after the program. Invariably, they are the very ones that concerned the employer before the program was delivered. When people wake up and become more enthused about their work environment, it will push someone who is thoroughly committed to “calling it in” to either go through an awakening or leaving.

I actually love encountering someone who is actively engaged in undermining. These are often our biggest turnarounds. You used the words “actively engaged.” As long as their negative campaign isn’t based on a pathology, these are often the very people who are angered by disengagement. Years ago, we had a leadership program where the talent team informed me that one of the most influential executives had created a trail of casualties. No one wanted to work with her in the program. Towards the end of the first day, this individual stood up and apologized for her behavior. She became someone people aspired to work for because she became one of the organization’s great mentors. I am not afraid of passion. I am afraid of a lack of caring.

To what extent must supervisors be role models during those initiatives?

Mid-managers are the most frenzied of all categories in the workplace. They are the most at-risk employees during economic downturns. We invest the least in their development. And yet, mid-managers are the primary influencers of the workers that touch America’s consumers.

Here’s another opinion of mine that also dates back several years. I became convinced that one person cannot motivate another but [begin italics] can inspire and activate, then nourish another person’s self-motivation. What do you think?

The idea that we can consistently motivate others by telling them what to do is delusional. Human beings are hard-wired to think about something other than themselves for a maximum of 15 seconds. This is a behavioral science fact. People are motivated by the pursuit of fulfilling their own needs and expectations. If we don’t connect with those needs than we are not going to motivate them. We’ve learned this in our leadership development programs. When we move an executives behavior from telling to connecting, it is a life-changing experience for them. Human beings crave connecting with others.

Leaders get frustrated when they know, on some fundamental level, that the smiling and nodding person in front of them isn’t connecting at all. This is why we are all of our programs are Socratic. When executives learn how to ask the questions that create connection, that reveal the needs and expectations of others, that is one of the more fulfilling experiences everyone can have.

Of all that you have experienced and observed, what do you think de-motivates a person more than anything else does?

Aimlessness.

Results of studies conducted by prominent research firms such as Gallup and Towers Watson indicate that “feeling appreciated” is ranked by employees among the top three benefits of greatest importance to them. Compensation is usually ranked somewhere between nine and twelve. What do you make of that?

I get a bit nervous with questions like this because American business is always looking for the “One Minute Manager.” Give me the cliff notes. Solutions in the complex modern workplace are multi-dimensional. Compensation has to be respectful. Even appreciation is a multi-dimensional proposition. For example, the recipient of appreciation ought to be gracious. When someone gets a big compliment and they tell the source, “Oh it was nothing” they are actually telling that person, “Don’t look at me, pay attention to me, don’t bother.” Some of our most productive workers have low self-esteem because they are not directly experiencing being productive through feedback and behavior. I am suspicious of black-and-white rankings.

Here is how the real world works. Everyone has to be responsible and accountable for engagement. We can’t solve the problem by heaping responsibility onto one sector. As task work disappears, we can’t have success if we have managers yelling, “Give me the top five issues” so they can get back to their tasks. We are stepping into a far more thoughtful, empathetic, creative, connected, and yes, engaged generation of worker. If we want engagement, people need to look at more than a list, they need to open up their hearts and minds, they need to experience some fear and risk, they need to change.

We need to change.

Here’s another revelation from extensive research. Most of the companies annually ranked among those most highly admired and best to work for are also annually ranked among those most profitable with the greatest cap value in their industry. What do you make of that?

Let’s circle back to a previous response. We cannot sustain employee engagement as long as we make it an expense. These highly admired and great places to work produce their profits because talent is treated as a key equation in their success. The CEOs recognize this. They roll up their sleeves and throw them into the mosh pit of culture. The structure’s we were given in the last three decades of the 20th century were all about “efficiency.” We pushed machine-like behavior, top ten lists, loyalty during good times and disloyalty during downturns. CEOs were only responsible for satisfying the shareholders, the market, and the money. We created turf protection around compensation structures that fed this model.

One of my mentors, Robert Maurer, told me “we learn nothing of value by studying dysfunction.” So, while many of these organizations and CEOs will swear this is the way to do business, they are all in mediocre positions for the present and especially the future. When a tribe is invested in everyone’s success and when our behavior matches that commitment on a daily basis, our probability of success skyrockets.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in The Workplace Engagement Solution will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career as a schoolteacher or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

I’m responding to all of these career categories in one fell swoop. My internal partner from USC recently became a business partner. Mary Campbell led the organizations talent development and acquisition group for fifteen years. Right now, we are writing a book and have launched an initiative to bring our work to families. We have been performing interventions with people’s careers for a long time. Why not get young people, even children on the right track. It will certainly save a lot of heartache. The average age of participants in The Inspired Work Program is 37. We are focused on lowering that age because doing so gets more people on a healthy track rather than doing what the past told them to do about work!

There is valuable information for anyone who works in this book. A teacher will get insights in how to manage a healthier career and give students insights on a successful life.

Mid-managers ought to be showered with copies of the book. They will get insights in how to take better care of their people but especially, they will be given ways to take much better care of themselves.

C-level executives will see organizational patterns that no longer work and finally understand what has to change. Others will understand that what they are doing is on the right track. I actually tell C-level organizations that if you are not ready to lead this yourself, don’t waste your time and money. All that a survey is going to do is make managers feel more inadequate and remind workers why they are unhappy!

Disengagement is far more than a business problem. It infects our families. It destroys customer relationships. At worst, it shields people from the greatest blessing life has to offer – work that matters, meaning, purpose, and joy.

The problem is so very big that I wrote The Workplace Engagement Solution for anyone who will listen.

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Here is a direct link to Part 1 of the interview.

David invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Inspired Work website link

The Amazon link to The Workplace Engagement Solution

BIZCATALYST 360 website link

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