David Zinger on Employee Engagement: A second interview by Bob Morris

ZingerDavid Zinger connects the strength of one with the power of many as an engagement speaker, coach, and consultant. He founded and hosts the global Employee Engagement Network, with more than 6,400 members and counting. He fuses a down-to-earth prairie upbringing with a global reach. He has worked on engagement in Canada, United States, Poland, Wales, Germany, England, India, Spain, and South Africa. He is a prolific author. He wrote Assorted Zingers: Poems and Cartoons to Take a Bite Out of Work and Engage: How to Get More Into Your Work to Get More Out of Your Work. He has written more than 2500 blog posts on work, engagement, management, and leadership. He has also co-created 10 exceptional free employee engagement e-Books in conjunction with the Employee Engagement Network.

He is also an educator. He taught Educational Psychology and Counseling Psychology at the University of Manitoba for 25 years. David’s specialties were work, humor, career development, well-being, engagement, management and leadership. He created the popular “Ten Building Blocks” pyramid of employee engagement to help clients focus on practical and tactical engagement. David believes that small is the new significant and that small, simple, strong, significant, scalable, and sustainable actions within the context of good work will make the biggest difference in engagement for the benefit of all.

Finally, David is innovative and experimental. He worked for three summers making connections between engagement, honeybees, work, and community. David believes honeybees provide an insightful and living model of the social elements of work and the importance of thinking differently inside our hives (organizations). To receive a free copy and learn more about his finding click on the title of David’s eBook, Waggle: 39 Ways to Improve Human Organizations, Work, and Engagement.

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Morris: A great deal has happened since our last conversation in January, 2012. It’s good to get caught up. Of all the changes that have occurred in employer-employee relations since then, which do you consider to be most significant? Please explain.

Zinger: I think mobile work combined with new technologies is significant but will grow immensely in the next 24 months. I see so many people using Fitbits and other ways to get metrics on their fitness and sleep and with the new Apple watch I see a lot more workplace applications coming out very quickly. Employee engagement needs to reside more in mobile.

Morris: At which point in your life did you become passionately interested in employee engagement? Please explain.

Zinger: Hearing my Dad, an executive, complain about his job when I was young made me wonder about work and relationships. Having a job early in the railway where people did their best to avoid working. But primarily working as an employee assistance counsellor for 15 years with Seagram let me know the workplace from the inside out. I want work, to work, for everyone.

Morris: To what extent (if any) are the dynamics of employer-employee relations in Canada [begin italics] significantly [end italics] different from those in the U.S.? Please explain.

Zinger: I travel the globe and I don’t study the macro elements. I am interested in the day-to-day. I redefined employee engagement a few months ago as good work, done well, with others, every day. I don’t care if you are in platinum mine in South Africa, the government in Singapore, or an office worker in Vancouver — we can all achieve good work. For too many people work is hell when I believe work can make us well!

Morris: Recent research by highly reputable firms such as Gallup and Towers Watson indicates that in a U.S. workplace today, on average, less than 30% of the employees are actively and productively engaged; as for the others, they are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the given company’s success. Why are so many employees either indifferent or hostile?

Zinger: Still not sure I believe the numbers. It often is just the classic bell curve and so given the bell you would expect about 20% disengagement. I think there is a lot of iatrogenic disengagement, meaning what we do around engagement may cause disengagement. I think it is tragic, on a small scale, when we don’t have open, honest, trusting, and respectful dialogues at work with everyone at work and that we need to rely on anonymity and outside consultancies to learn about our own workplaces.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. How to increase the percentage of those employees who are actively and productively engaged?

Zinger: That’s a book or two. I think it is small, strategic, significant, and sustainable behaviors done daily. I think culture and strategy and climate are way too large to handle. I want three or four key engaging behaviors done every day. This can range from meaningful conversations to beautiful questions, to ongoing conversations about performance, progress, and setbacks, etc.

Morris: When and why did you found the Employee Engagement Network?

Zinger: January 26, 2008, was a very cold Saturday in Winnipeg (-30º) and I did not want to go outside. I also wanted a small community of people to talk with about engagement.

Morris: Today, there are more than 6,400 members. Does that surprise you? Please explain.

Zinger: It was very surprising as more people joined. It was a very vibrant community for the first four years and has been changing as people do a lot of their “social work” on Linked In and Twitter. I am thrilled that so many joined considering this is a little project on the side of my desk with some help from John Junson, my friend from junior high mate in Winnipeg.

Morris: To what extent (if any) has the original mission of the EEN changed since you founded it? Please explain.

Zinger: I think it has followed the S-curve in innovation and I believe the EEN needs a new role and function. To that end I see it as a learning network. It will be less about chit chat and more about learning and education to make engagement better for all. Really, this has been a side of the desk project, taking longer than I would have hoped, but I am seeing some very encouraging signs. I hope to offer a badging process and 3 levels of certificates for employee engagement: primer, practitioner, and professional. I hope to have many different people, organizations, and agencies offer badges and may people to improve their learning and credentials around engagement. That would be a fine goal taking us to 2020.

Morris: In your opinion, is there also a serious problem with regard to [begin italics] supervisor [end italics] engagement? Please explain.

Zinger: I am not sure it is a serious problem so much as how much we have heaped upon the plate of supervisors and managers. Employee engagement will die if it is an extra we need to help all employees, including managers, leaders, and supervisors integrate engaging approaches into their work.

Morris: As you know, Teresa Amabile is among those who stress the importance of doing work that you love because the work that you most enjoy is probably what you do best. What do you think?

Zinger: You can’t always do the work you love but you can love the work you do. Erich Fromm writing about the Art of Love said it best in a business context. Beyond mushy ephemeral emotions, he stated the art of love required: discipline, concentration, and patience.

I think Teresa made a much larger contribution with her work on progress and setbacks and I am trying to conduct some experiments with mobile managers using experimental and control groups to see if conversations around setback and progress move the dial on engagement. We need more experimentation and less correlation in engagement.

Morris: Here are a number of observations of special interest and value to me. Please share your thoughts about each. First, from Matthew Crawford:

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering [begin italics] interpretations [end italics] of himself to vindicate his worth.”

Zinger: Seems nice but so abstract. All work is noble even chattering.

Morris: Next, from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

“To achieve the kind of world we consider human, some people had to dare to break the thrall of tradition, Next, they had to find ways of recording those new ideas or procedures that improved on what went on before. Finally, they had to find ways of transmitting the new knowledge to generations to come. Those who were involved in this process we call creative. What we call culture, or those parts of ourselves that we internalized from the social environment, is their creation.”

Zinger: Robert, I am too small for all of this. As I move into my 60’s I want whatever is small, simple, significant, and sustainable. I am so tired of the prophets extolling being great and loving all you do. I just want good work done well with others every day.

Morris: Then, from Carl Jung:

“Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him his instrument. The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him. As a human being, he may have moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is a ‘man’ in a higher sense — he is ‘collective man’ — one who carries and shapes the unconscious, psychic life of mankind.”

Zinger: Jung is good and being young is even better and growing old is even better than that. I do see art in work and if there is no art we are missing a vital part of work.

Morris: With rare exception, great leaders throughout history seem to have had a “green thumb” for “growing” people, mostly ordinary people, to achieve extraordinary results. In your opinion, to what extent does a workplace environment resemble a “garden”? Please explain.

\Zinger: Yikes, this gets close to Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There with Chauncey Gardiner. These wonderful quotes make me realize how mundane I have become. I am not peeved at that, maybe even slightly satisfied. I do love the zen psychology of fetch wood and carry water. I don’t care much for the formality of how it is often practiced. Spirituality to me, means doing something in the service of others, and I hope that I have been a little bit of service. And that is good work, it is spiritual, because it can be done in the service of others. By the way I hate the term Servant Leadership. It seems so reactionary against command and control. We can be of service without being servants and living on the flat Canadian prairies I think we need to really level with one another.

Morris: Opinions about the importance of leadership charisma are sharply divided. I think it resembles a pleasing fragrance. It smells good but don’t drink it. Your own thoughts about the importance of charisma?

Zinger: I like it when I see it. But I want the potatoes peeled and mashed. Henry Mintzberg stated all this so much better than I by saying good leaders manage and good managers lead and we are embedded in “communityship.” I do hope that engagement gets reduced to engage and we have the verb of engage being lived and expressed in all we do.

Morris: I am frequently asked, “Are leaders born or made?” My answer is “Yes.” I think that leadership skills – such as communication, and decision-making — can be developed through training but values and qualities of character (for better or worse) can only be influenced, usually through personal experience and/or by interaction with others. What do you think?

Zinger: Having a last name starting with the last letter of the alphabet I am more of a follower than a leader. If you follow real closely you may help steer the herd by saying “take a look over there.” I am invitational in all I do and I hope I have extended some good invitations to work.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the single most important question to ask when interviewing a job candidate? Please explain.

Zinger: I love the vagueness of the question: What stood out for you? You could ask that about what stood out for you in the last job, what stood out for you in your life, what stood out for you today, or what stood out for you so far in this interview. I love to hear what stands out for people.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has retained you to help establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Zinger: I am too small for culture. I love the Spice girls’ question: So tell me what do you want, what do you really really want? Then tell me why you want it. And is it what other people want. How do you extend compelling invitations and how do we make this as small and significant as possible.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the business lessons you have learned over the years, which 2-3 do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Zinger: Care. Care for employees. Care for customers. Care for your family. Care for yourself. Care for profits. Caring is not soft and mushy. We can care-front others too. Ensure that caring is made tangible.

o Do good work: Work that is good and also of good quality.
o Be experimental: be skeptical while not becoming cynical.

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

Zinger: What stood out for you in responding to these questions? Answer: How small and simple I have become. I can’t wait until I turn 70 in a decade to see if I have gotten even smaller and simpler! I plan to work until I am 75 and I realize with this answer I will never really retire I will just get so small that I may disappear.

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



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