David Zinger: An interview by Bob Morris

ZingerDavid Zinger founded and hosts the Employee Engagement Network (EEN), a 4500 global member community devoted to employee engagement.  David is an author, educator, and speaker. He wrote over 1400 blog posts and authored two books on work – Zengage: How to Get More Into Your Work to Get More Out of Your Work and Assorted Zingers: Poems and Cartoons to Take a Bite Out of Work. David is very active with social media and he was named the number one online leadership influencer in 2011 by HR Examiner. He is currently working extensively with the Pyramid of Employee Engagement: The 10 Things Managers Must Do to Create and Increase Employee Engagement. David has taught counseling psychology and educational psychology at the University of Manitoba for 25 years and he was the employee assistance counselor and career development coach for Seagram Ltd. For 15 years.

Note: Since this interview was conducted (January 2012), EEN has — under David’s billiant leadership — increased its global membership from 4500 to more than 5600 and now offers more than 9000 resources that include 464 videos and eight e-books. Today, as EEN celebrates its fifth birthday, it has 564 forums and 40 special interest groups. Membership is free. I urge you to check it out by clicking here. Well-done, David. Bravo!

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Morris: Who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth?

Zinger: My parents taught me much. My mother gave me the gift of imagination and empathy and my father gave me the confidence of speaking fused with critical thinking.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development?

Zinger: I think personal and professional development is intertwined. I received much from parents and family and I have learned from a few excellent educators and 3 terrific mentors. Ray Perry helped me understand research and social psychology. Richard Carreiro helped me understand counseling and relationships. Peter Dyck helped me understand management and leadership.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow?

Zinger: There have been a number of transitional and transformational moments. I was a private pilot and came extremely close to crashing when I was 22 years old. Ever since that time my life is on bonus time. Working as a counselor in a distillery was also such an education on how personal and work lives converge and conflict.

Morris: To what extent has your formal training proven invaluable to what you have achieved thus far?

Zinger: Being a counseling psychologist has been invaluable. I think of the network a bit like a counseling group. I learned the vital skills of empathy and caring. I believe that in 2012 all our work, regardless of what you do it social work and I learned a lot about social in psychology and counseling.

Morris: What are your major sources of mental and spiritual as well as physical nutrition? That is, how do you (as Tony Schwartz describes it) “refuel” yourself to become more energized, focused, and productive?

Zinger: I am a bedroom Buddhist. I don’t practice Buddhism but I like to read popular Buddhist writers before I go to sleep. I like to run, nothing refreshes and energizes me like running. Spiritual means focusing on something greater than ourselves and there a billion things greater than me.

Morris: Percentages vary from among major research studies (e.g. Gallup, TowersWatson, U.S. Department of Labor) but there seems to be no doubt that, on average, only 20-30% of those in a U.S. company’s workforce are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, working at cross purposes with the organization’s values and objectives. How do explain this?

Zinger: I believe that engagement generally shakes out like a statistical bell curve. Why do we keep measuring small variations in the bell curve? I want real time engagement as I know my engagement changes 10 or 20 times a day. We are all responsible for our own engagement while being accountable to each other. Let’s measure less and engage more.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of an organization within which almost everyone is actively and productively engaged?

Zinger: CONNECTION is the key. I have a model that demonstrated the 14 key connections. http://www.davidzinger.com/zinger-model/. I don’t want to outline another long list but overall a strong organization has bi-directional connections between employee and organizations on results, strategies, etc.  Engagement is not a fluffy extra it must be woven into the fabric of work.

Morris: Most of the companies annually ranked among the “most highly admired” and “best to work for” are also annually ranked among the companies “most profitable” in their respective industries. What do you make of that?

Zinger: Engage in results and those results matter. It is more than just financial results but if we don’t stay economically valuable the organization may not be viable. Everything is connected in organizations we just fail sometimes to see them, to act upon them, or make those connections more robust.

Morris: From which business books have you learned the most valuable lessons about leadership and management?

Zinger: I have read thousands of books related to business, management, organizations, and psychology. It is ironic that not one really stands out more than the sum. I like to read and integrate. I tend to remember the more recent books the most so I have appreciated The Progress Principle recently. There are so many good book and great blogs on business and management. Robert, you do an exceptional job on the Employee Engagement Network of letting us know what is currently out there and thank you so much for doing that.

Morris: From which works of fiction — such as novels and plays — have you learned the most valuable business lessons?

Zinger: Don Quixote was my favorite book. I think it resonates with my life and work story. Perhaps all my work on employee engagement it tilting at windmills but I love the imagination and the quest.

Morris: From which films have you learned the most valuable lessons about effective teamwork?

Zinger: It is absolutely fascinating to me to receive these questions about books and films. Years ago I would have had fast responses on the tip of my tongue.  Now the messages are mingled and the impact is more ephemeral. We have over 300 videos on the Employee Engagement Network and many of these are fantastic short videos. I love how many young people are taking control of their work and creating such good short pieces. I am not trying to be cryptic here, Robert, just honest to my experience.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a “crucial conversation”?Zinger: A crucial conversation is all about creating safety. I think we have a bigger issue with safety in the workplace than engagement. I hate anonymous employee engagement surveys. It says to employees that we don’t want to know who you are and you can’t trust us to be honest about your engagement. Disengagement is not a punishable offence; it should be a trigger for a conversation. Safety is created through mutual purpose and mutual respect.  In everyday language it means I care about you and I care about what you are interested in and you know it.

Morris: How best to prepare one’s self for one?

Zinger: Fear holds us back. The only way to overcome fear is to experience it while also feeling safe. We create safety not just for others but ourselves. Prepare through caring and determining what you really want.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to the Employee Engagement Network. When and why did you decide to found it?

Zinger: I started this network 4 years ago on January 26, 2008 as a small experiment. It was not by design or strategy. I just wanted to have some people to talk with about engagement and to learn more about running a social media community. It was an experiment and I would have been happy with 20 people and I am delighted that we now have over 4500 members.

Morris:  What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

Zinger: I live pretty much in the present moment, Robert. I am glad to have done what I did and I love making small bets and little experiments and see where they go. I am an improviser at heart with a small dash of strategic improvisation.

Morris: During the years since you founded EEN, what has been the one development that has surprised you most? Why?

Zinger: How many people have joined us. I am thinking very seriously about the end of employee engagement even though many people are just discovering it. I want employee engagement to end well. I don’t want employee engagement to fade away or be usurped by a new fad. I want to see it integrated into work, management, and leadership to such an extent that to use the term would be redundant.

Morris: What are the most significant differences between heading a membership organization such as the Employee Engagement Network and a company that has 4,500 employees?

Zinger: The network is a hobby. The network is voluntary. We don’t have shareholders or investors. I think it is pretty easy to found and facilitate a network compared to a company. The network is just a very small part of what I do.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, to what extent do both types of organization pose the same leadership challenges? Please explain.

Zinger: I think we lead through caring and we lead by following. It is a challenge to keep caring and to listen carefully to follow.  I am not bad as a convener and contributor to the network; I am not great as a leader. I do the best I can with what I’ve got and what I can offer.  Perhaps like the Queen Bee in a hive I will be replaced by someone who can take it much further than I have.

Morris: Let’s say that a company has retained you to help it increase the number of its employees who are actively and productively engaged. Where would you begin? Why?

Zinger: I live in the moment and begin where I am. Let’s talk with who is talking to me about engagement. I love it when we can bring managers, leaders, and all the other employees together. Engagement is not a problem it is an experience to be lived. Right now I am very focused on the Pyramid of Engagement and I would focus on people bringing the pyramid to life for the benefit of all. To learn more about how I have distilled my knowledge and experience of employee engagement into a pyramid click the following link: http://www.davidzinger.com/new-course-the-10-things-managers-must-do-to-increase-employee-engagement/

Morris: Here are a few of my favorite quotations. Please share your thoughts about each. First, from Lao-Tzu:
“Learn from the people

Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Zinger: I think work is co-created. I love Lao-Tzu and what he offers. A good lesson and a challenge for me to put into practice.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Zinger: There are many truths and we don’t so much find them as create them. I think it is imperative to weave belief and doubt into small steps of action.

Morris: From Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Zinger: Authenticity is key.

Morris: From Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

Zinger: I appreciate Helen, used to like that quote, now I find it too extreme. Lots of people are not living daring adventures but living a life of experience and contribution. I like to say that life is not a problem to be solved it is an experience to be lived.
Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Zinger: Peter made such excellent contributions. I loved how he focused on strengths near the end of his career. I think what is really useless is not showing up to the life you have. So many of us are mindless about work and our emotions.

Morris: If you were hosting a private dinner during an extended evening of lively conversation and could invite (let’s say) any five persons throughout human history, who would they be? Please explain the reasons for selecting each.

Zinger: Once again, I am surprised by my answers. I would have taken great people in the past. Now I would love to have dinner with my parents who died years ago. It would be nice to also have my in-laws who also died years ago. I am pretty happy with the day to day. I don’t need great people and big ideas. I need to show up for what is right there.
Morris: On your opinion, what is the single greatest challenge that CEOs will face during the next 3-5 years? Any advice for them?

Zinger: The big challenge and it has been there for many years is to keep getting results AND build relationships especially as organizations, to survive and thrive, will need to become authentic communities. My advice: be mindful, be kind, be tenacious, be gentle, and “be the change you expect to see in your organization.”

Morris: What do you think will be EEN’s greatest challenge in 2012? Please explain.

Zinger: I see a great diffusion of social media that began in the summer of 2011. It will be interesting to see how we respond to this diffusion. Will the network be a welcome “engagement” home to return to about the topic or will people customize so strongly that there is not a need for the network to act as a vital center of engagement?

Morris: What question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Zinger:  I am very active in learning from honeybees. I have been placing office objects and computers in hives for 2 years to work on engagement, artistry, and co-creation with these fascinating communities that pollinate so much of what we eat, developed democracy with brains the size of a seed of grass, offer us honey, are egoless and will sting and die to protect the colony, and are in danger themselves.

This year June I will be putting live social media in a few hives to celebrate social. Bees are social creatures that we can learn much from and they can benefit much from us. I want to engage with bees and learn lessons for how we engage in organizations. I am hosting a summer solstice social on June 20 with honeybees.

The community organization of bees has influenced how I facilitate the network and I love the idea of thinking differently inside our hives. You can learn more at www.zinghive.com.

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








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