Rodd Wagner: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Wagner, RoddRodd Wagner is the New York Times bestselling author of the book Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees As If They’re Real People, published by McGraw-Hill (April 2015). He is one of the foremost authorities on employee engagement and collaboration. Wagner’s books, speeches, and thought leadership focus on how human nature affects business strategy. He currently serves as vice president of employee engagement strategy at BI Worldwide. He is a confidential advisor to senior executives on the best ways to increase their personal effectiveness and their organizations’ performance. His work has taken him around the world, to the executive suites of major corporations in nearly every industry, to the Pentagon, and to the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz.

Rodd is lead author of two other books: 12: The Elements of Great Managing and Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and in Life. His books have been published in 10 languages and his work featured in The Wall Street Journal, ABC News Now, BusinessWeek.com, CNBC.com, and the National Post of Canada, and parodied in Dilbert. He holds an M.B.A. with honors from the University of Utah Graduate School of Business. He was formerly a principal of Gallup, the research director of the Portland Press Herald, and WGME-TV in Maine, a reporter and news editor for The Salt Lake Tribune, and a radio talk show host. When not writing or consulting, he enjoys fly-fishing, snowboarding, and coaching youth lacrosse.

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write Widgets?

Wagner: I decided to write Widgets a couple years ago, as my colleagues and I took stock of everything that had changed in previous decade and as the first wave of our research made it apparent there was a compelling story to tell.

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

Wagner: Each of what I called “the New Rules of Engagement” reflects a rewriting of the old social contract. As I assembled the evidence for each chapter, it became clear the world had changed with respect to that issue. How, for example, can a company get its people committed to work on long-term plans for the organization at the same time it is laying off dedicated people and no one who remains knows whether he or she will be there to see the plan fulfilled? At what point, to cite another example, does an organization’s poking and prodding of employees in the interest of so-called “wellbeing” get creepy?

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

Wagner: It took two chapters rather than one to lay the foundation. It took two chapters rather than one to wrap things up after covering each of the 12 New Rules. Otherwise, it’s largely structured as I envisioned. But the details – the examples and the particular form of the arguments – showed up only in the writing. Concepts and facts in my mind are non-linear. I can let them float around and connect in three or four dimensions in my mind right up until the moment I start writing. A book is linear. It requires I get each idea and statistic to get in line. These ideas don’t behave much better than a group of kindergarteners a teacher is trying to take on a field trip. I am always a little surprised, amused, or intrigued at how these things assemble themselves when required to do so. Under this pressure to organize my thoughts, or in the discussion of the draft with my manager or a trusted friend, insights emerge that never would have popped out except under these conditions. Those breakthroughs are always worth the price of admission.

Morris: To what extent do you develop in greater depth ideas introduced in your previous books, 12 and Power of 2? Please explain.

Wagner: 12 was written a decade ago. Except for the stories of the great managers I interviewed for the book, which are good examples regardless of their time, the science in the book is as dated now as the cell phone I carried in 2005 when I was writing it. Gallup has not changed its Q12 questions since 1998, a year before First, Break All the Rules was published. While human nature has not changed in that time, the business context certainly has. You can tell in Widgets that I am critical of Gallup and its many copycats for their lack on innovation in the face of dramatic changes to the unwritten social contract over the last 16 years. In Widgets, I hit the reset button hard.

The research Gale Muller and I did for Power of 2, on the other hand, grounded me in the science of reciprocity, which substantially influenced my research and writing for Widgets. It was a good launching pad for this most recent book.

Most important, while I was the lead author of both those books, one does not take as many liberties or speak as candidly when writing on behalf of two people (and on behalf of a company, a fact for which I was once slammed in The Wall Street Journal). Widgets is the first book where I am sole author, where I could communicate most directly and bluntly with the reader. Where the facts showed it necessary, I’ve contradicted what I wrote a decade ago, either because further evidence indicated the truth was something different or because the world changed and what was true then is not true now. Like that “best friend at work” question? Pssst! It really is a dumb thing to put on a survey.

Morris: Here’s a motivation issue on which opinions are divided – sometimes sharply divided. I doubt that leaders can motivate other people but they can inspire them to become self-motivated. What do you think?

Wagner: Putting all the responsibility for an employee’s motivation on him or her is an abdication of responsibility, and contrary to a wealth of research. We’ve all had good jobs and bad jobs and we know that we were more motivated in the good jobs. Just because there is evidence that people do bring a certain bearing to work with them does not mean that there’s not a huge range in their intensity that depends on the quality of their enterprise’s leadership and managers.

Morris: Many people see themselves as “widgets” and one of the reasons is that creativity and individuality tend to be discouraged in schools, especially in elementary public schools. Do you agree?

Wagner: That’s a bad rap. Schools are such different places than they were a generation or two ago. I find them exceptionally open to recognizing different talents in individual students. Schools are also in the difficult position of having to recognize individuality while at the same time needing to teach certain skills and knowledge that everyone ought to have. Business can afford to have people specialize. Schools must help kids master general knowledge. My teachers knew me as a hard-core science kid. They would be shocked to find out I became a writer. It’s a good thing no one waived the English requirements for me along the way.

Morris: Many managers see themselves as “widgets” and one of the reasons is that they tend to have responsibility for [begin italics] but very little authority over [end italics] those whom they manage, as is the “way” at Google. Your own thoughts about all this?

Wagner: Without speaking about Google, which is a topic by itself, sure, it happens all the time. The quality of managing is constrained by the little latitude given to those managers and the degree to which the managers themselves are looked after by their managers. I’ve been in a few situations where I had fantastic managers, but the leadership of the company was clueless. I asked my managers for their advice. They all said something such as, “There’s nothing more here for either of us. Let’s both get out.” And we did. Most managers will tow the company line up to a point, but eventually they choke on the words, because they care about their people.

Morris: In your opinion, can what you characterize as “The New Rules of Engagement” work in the military services? Please explain.

Wagner: Absolutely. We’re still talking about human nature. It’s often struck me how different the vocabulary is, but how much the concepts are the same. In many ways, the military is ahead of the civilian world. Pay is transparent. The path to promotion is much clearer. There is a system for recognizing achievement and sacrifice. The incentives for teamwork are nearly perfected in a way that would be the envy of any civilian organization. And the pressures are so much greater that the proportion of exemplary leaders is, in my estimation, much higher.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye.

For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as [begin italics] the most important point [end italics] or key take-away in each of these passages.

First, The Widget worldview (Pages 1-9, 76-79, and 165-167)

Wagner: When did it become okay to refer to people as “FTEs,” “headcount,” “human capital,” or – worst – “human resources?” Employment has become more transactional. We’ve lost much of our humanity toward the people who do the work that make our organizations succeed. I’ve gotten some pushback that in Widgets I’m arguing semantics, but these poor terms referring to people have consequences in the ways they end up being treated.

Morris: Burnout (4-5, 31-32, and 69-73)

Wagner: The United States in particular has a bad premise – made worse by the job insecurity of the Great Recession and the electronic leashes we have in our smartphones – that working exceptionally long hours is a sign of engagement. At the same time, companies are presuming to tell their employees to be healthier. You can’t have both. The research is clear that working people too long and too hard does damage to both the employee and the company’s performance. Employee burnout is a consequence of ineffective and unaware management.

Morris: Reciprocal employees and mutual trust (14-15, 20-21, and 30-31)

Wagner: Employees are getting smarter at understanding the real deal at work. They’ve seen people asked to give their all to their employer and that commitment being repaid with a surprise layoff. They’ve seen senior executive pay rise to previously unseen levels while pay for the front line has stagnated. The traditional players lament the allegedly low levels of engagement (it turns out they’re not that low) without appreciating the fact that companies get the engagement and performance that they deserve.

Morris: Competition for talent (16-17, 41-42, and 60-65)

Wagner: It’s fascinating how the pendulum swung from the so-called “War for Talent” before the Great Recession to most companies abusing their leverage during the downturn to companies once again falling all over themselves to attract and keep employees. This aspect of the bargain between employees and companies follows the laws of supply and demand as much as the market for coffee beans, lumber, or cattle. For a brief time at the back end of the recession, layoffs and other terminations outnumbered people quitting. Now we’re back to the more natural state of affairs, where quitting outnumbers involuntary terminations, which is good. It keeps companies honest. It makes organizations more likely to create the kinds of conditions where employees are treated better and do their best work.

Morris: Great Recession (17-21, 48-50, and 227-228)

Wagner: One of my grandmothers was quite impoverished during the Great Depression. Decades later, when she had plenty of money, if we went to a restaurant and there were rolls that didn’t get eaten, she would put them in her purse. “Once they’ve been on the table, they have to throw them out anyway. No use letting them go to waste,” she would say. The Depression had left a lasting impression on her and many of her generation. To a much lesser, but still substantial degree, the Great Recession left a mark. It made people less trusting of their employers. It made them fearful it could happen again. I believe it’s one of the reasons people are shy about pushing for raises even as their employers accumulate cash. It taught Millennials they were entering a potentially hostile work world where it makes sense to be careful about over-committing to any one organization. It made companies push their existing employees harder rather than hiring more people to assume part of the load. The effects of that recession will play out for decades to come.

Morris: Good health (67-79 and 225-226)

Wagner: Two key points emerge from the current fad with “wellbeing” initiatives. First, you can’t ask your people to be healthier if the long hours and burnout from their jobs are one of the chief causes for their lack of health. Second, in the interest of reducing health care costs, many companies have presumed to intrude into the most highly personal aspects of their employees’ lives. It’s creepy. The evidence is accumulating that it does nothing to actually reduce the cost of health care (and may increase it). And it’s sparking in some quarters a severe backlash that puts employees at odds with their employers.

Morris: Coolness (81-94)

Wagner: Being a cool place to work is a new part of the social bargain. It shows up clearly in our research that feeling like one works at a cool place strongly motivates the employee. This didn’t matter as much when there were clearly delineated work and off hours – when an employee could go to the office, do his work, and leave it at the office – but once work and personal life became intermingled to the extent they are now, it became important that work be more fun and exciting.

Morris: Meaningful work (109-122)

Wagner: Meaning in one’s work is personal. It’s the reason I do not advise that leaders should presume to tell employees why they should find purpose in what they do on the job. It’s unnecessary; most employees gravitate toward an industry and a company that has meaning for them. What leaders need to avoid are situations where the sense of meaning is destroyed by overwork, by callously cancelling a project in which an employee has invested heavily, or by being dismissive of what that person finds meaningful.

Morris: Future orientation (123-135 and 227-228)

Wagner: We all think about and plan for the future. When money stayed invested longer in organizations and when people stayed or were kept on longer, perhaps for their whole careers, an employee’s “career path” could be better sketched out. Now organizations ask their people to build a future for the company that the employee may not be there to see. This is one of the biggest challenges for leadership: how to prepare people for a future that might or might not be inside that firm.

Morris: Employee recognition and appreciation (137-114)

Wagner: We are social creatures and most of us crave social reinforcement, beyond the financial rewards of doing our jobs well. It’s a simple matter of neurobiology. What a company does not recognize, it should not expect to see repeated.

Morris: Collaboration (149-162)

Wagner: Some leaders abuse tribal metaphors in an attempt to get people to make sacrifices for the business. They’ll say their company is like a tribe or like a family. When was the last time your family laid off 20 percent of its membership? As tortured as the metaphor has become, employees in a well-functioning group are a team. Like any team, they’ve been brought together to accomplish certain goals. They play different positions. They get paid based on the importance of their position to the win and how well they play that position. And they can change teams, taking off one jersey to put on another. Just as with a sports team, real teamwork happens when the benefits of working for the success of the group exceed the rewards of going it alone or going to a competing team.

Morris: Extreme activities (175-188)

Wagner: Leaders are constantly pushing employees to help the company reach “stretch” goals. What they are less deliberate about is making sure the employees get to claim a meaningful personal achievement in the bargain.

Morris: Happiness (203-210)

Wagner: A surprisingly large proportion of engagement consultants are openly antagonistic toward firms aiming to make their employees happy. Make them “engaged, “they say, by which they really mean working harder and asking less of their employers. If they made the same assertions in front of the employees, they’d have an insurrection on their hands. (This is the reason I quoted them directly in one chapter of the Widgets.) With all the sacrifices organizations now ask of their employees, if happiness is not part of the bargain, then so-called “engagement” initiatives are really just a big trick. Early on, Scott Adams called out the contradiction in a couple “Dilbert” comic strips. I simply laid out the evidence, with endnotes, in the book to fully make the case.

Morris: Of all the great leaders throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Wagner: I’d like to have dinner with Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. I’ve studied their writing, their decisions, and their policies. I’ve written about them in two books, both times wishing I could have asked them some key questions directly. They had an incredible business partnership, and everything I’ve seen about their approach indicates they felt a deep moral responsibility to their employees. They had a conscience and, frankly, a business acumen that escapes many of the rand-and-yank current or former CEOs who are deified today.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Widgets and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. In your opinion, where to begin?

Wagner: CEOs often don’t fully appreciate that in addition to being leaders of their firms, they are also the immediate supervisors of the rest of the C-level executives. A CEO should start first by being a better manager with those 10 or 12 people, with the expectation that each of his or her direct reports will, in turn, become a better manager. The most effective organizations are wired like this from the CEO right through to the front lines.

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Here’s a link to Part 1.

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

One site is aimed at leaders and managers. Another site is aimed at employees. Both link to my blog and, most important, to the New Rules index self-assessment where employees can discover for free how their job stacks up against the jobs of people in the rest of the country.

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