For some of us, the key to a more fulfilling work life is finding a job that matches our strengths or a career that makes it easy for us to do what we do best. By spending more of our time doing what we’re good at, we’re going to be happier and feel more balanced.
Organizations that take the time to understand employees’ strengths will benefit, too. This is particularly crucial for businesses that want to lure millennial workers and keep them engaged, says Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief scientist of workplace management and well-being.
In a new book, “First Break All the Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently,” Harter aims to help managers and organizations measure and increase engagement. The book uses information from two mammoth research studies Gallup conducted over the past 25 years. The first asked what the most talented employees need from their workplace. Their answer: great managers. The second asked how the world’s greatest mangers find and keep talented employees. The answer: They are willing to individualize.
I asked Harter to provide insight on what it means to break the rules of employee engagement and how doing so would help employees with their work-life balance.
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Q. You’ve been studying employee engagement, talent, management and well-being for nearly 30 years. Why is engagement so critical to success in the workplace?
A. In short, organizations with higher percentages of engaged employees are more efficient in getting done what they want to get done. Engaged employees are highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. When organizations get “engagement” right, they improve company performance and the overall lives of their employees. Only 13 percent of workers around the world, and approximately one-third of U.S. workers, are engaged in their work and workplace.
Q. What are the links between employee strengths, employee engagement, and individual and company performance?
A. Employees who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their strengths or positive characteristics have more than double the odds of being engaged in comparison to the average of all employees. A strengths-based approach that defines the individual differences of each person and seeks to leverage those differences provides a more efficient path to engaging employees. A manager that sets clear expectations, gets the right materials and equipment, positions each individual to do what he does best, provides the right recognition, and cares about developing employees usually has higher engagement. Engaged workplaces perform substantially better than their peers, and this has been the case even through massive changes in the economy and technology over the past two decades.
Q. What advice would you give to hiring managers? What should they look for in a prospective employee?
A. First, it is important to define what success looks like within the roles you are hiring for. What are the outcomes that define success within the role? How long does it take to achieve those desired outcomes? Second, identify your most successful people within the role and consult subject matter experts to define the responsibilities that lead to success. What are the experiences that successful people obtain as they progress within the organization? Very importantly, what innate characteristics define success within the role? The characteristics that differentiate between your top performers and your average or low performers are the ones to focus on in your hiring process.
Q. What advice would you give to job seekers, recent graduates, as well as individuals re-entering the work force?
A. First and foremost, make sure you know your own strengths. As part of the new edition of “First, Break All the Rules,” we include a code to the online Clifton StrengthsFinder instrument, an evidence-based, validated tool to discover your top themes — those you lead with in your work and life. Also, become familiar with the 12 elements that are important to building an engaged workforce, also highlighted in the book. The 12 elements of engagement represent the type of workplace you should expect from your employer and contribute to developing.
Q. What’s the biggest mistake people make when they accept a job?
A. Most people think primarily about pay and location and, in general terms, the job title and type of work. But over time, being in a job where you can do what you do best, be recognized for your achievements, learn and grow, and be a contributing part of the decisions and progress of the organization will matter much more to your overall well-being. These things are all highly influenced by your direct manager.
Ask to meet the person who will be managing you or learn as much as possible about the expectations of managers in the organization. Certainly, pay is important to everyone. But don’t choose a job with a little more pay if you know nothing about your potential to develop and use your strengths within the organization.
Q. You’ve hired exactly the right person for the job. What are some of the ways you can best engage that person in order to retain him or her?
A. First, get him or her a great manager. Through their own engagement, natural talents and behaviors, managers account for more than 70 percent of variance in team engagement. Second, learn about the individual’s innate talents and strengths. Third, define the right outcomes so that he or she has clear expectations. Participative goal-setting creates ownership for the expectations and alignment with what he or she is passionate about with the organization’s overall objectives and purpose.
Fourth, learn how he or she likes to be recognized, and honor that when he or she achieves success. Fifth, work with her or him to map out a developmental path that gives a chance to learn, grow, and progress. Sixth, provide ongoing coaching that takes into account how he or she works best. Discuss goals, aspirations, experiences needed, successes, barriers, the future, and overall well-being. Finally, make sure you create situations at work where this person has a chance to get to know his or her coworkers, not just as workers, but as people.
Q. How does finding the right job fit allow the employee to find work-life balance?
A. One of the top predictors of overall well-being is obtaining work where you have an opportunity to do what you do best every day. This means you’re in a job where your natural abilities match with the demands of the job and are positioned in a way where you can use your strengths most of the time during your work days. Probably every job has required tasks that aren’t the first thing any of us would choose to do. The key is to influence the abundance of what you spend your time doing.
In a recent Gallup study, we found people with the highest engagement in their work spent about four times as much time focusing on using their strengths to do what they do best in comparison to doing what they don’t do well or don’t like to do. Actively disengaged employees, on the other hand, spent about equal time focusing on their strengths as weaknesses. The single best predictor of positive mood during the day was hours spent so absorbed in work that time passed quickly.
Work-life balance may not be the perfect description for what most people are looking for these days. With increases in remote working and mobile technology that blends work and overall life, finding engaging work means the transition from non-work time to work time is less stressful and disruptive.
Job: Chief scientist of workplace management and well-being for Gallup’s workplace management practice. He has been with Gallup since 1985.
Also: He is coauthor of “12: The Elements of Great Managing,” an exploration of the 12 crucial elements for creating and harnessing employment engagement. He also wrote “Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements,” based on a global study of what differentiates people who are thriving from those who are not. His research is featured in “First, Break All the Rules.”
Background: Harter, based in the Omaha, Nebraska area, received his doctorate in psychological and cultural studies in quantitative and qualitative methods from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has been an adjunct faculty member at UNL and as an associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Harter is on the editorial board of the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies and is a regular reviewer for other prominent academic journals. Since 1985, he has authored or coauthored more than 1,000 research studies for organizations on employee engagement and talent and on topics in applied psychology and well-being. His specialties include psychological measurement and estimating the economic impact of management initiatives.