Rodd Wagner is a skilled and informative writer on employee engagement, work, and leadership. He is a columnist and author of books on leadership and collaboration. His last book was Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees As If They're Real People. Here are a few phrases from the first two pages of the book: “Your people are not your greatest asset. They’re not yours, and they’re not assets … employees are not ‘human resources’ … no father holds his young son and hopes he will one day grow up to a great ‘resource.’”
I love Rodd’s down-to-earth take on work. In a column on Forbes, he stated:
“The broad pattern across most employee intentions is that a majority, often an overwhelming majority, is inclined toward working hard and smart if their employers can just deliver moderately well on the reasonable expectations of a good job. Pay competitively. Recognize good work. Share information. Foster some teamwork. Manage people as individuals. Throw the occasional party. …There is no employee engagement crisis. There is instead a wide and dynamic range populated with more good news than bad. Reports of the death of employee commitment have been greatly exaggerated.”
What early influences drew you to your current writing and perspective on the workplace?
I began my career as a journalist covering “cops and courts.” It was a crash course in human nature. I learned to write crisply. I came to appreciate the responsibility that comes with publishing—that I was sometimes reporting on people’s toughest challenges and how I wrote about it for a print run of 150,000 copies would have an effect.
My first studies of the workplace—admittedly informal—were the conversations I had on the side with police officers, firefighters, ambulance drivers, correctional workers, and emergency room supervisors. All of those professions work around the clock, learn to deal with stuff most people don’t see, and—in the best cases—become very strategic about knowing what they need to persevere on the job.
Who currently influences or informs your thinking about work?
I bounce around quite a bit in search of people who are doing intriguing research or have novel insights or both. The people who inform my future work are often people of whom I haven’t heard until spending a few hours on Google Scholar and finding a cool experiment that gets to the heart of the issue.
That said, Zeynep Ton—with her book The Good Jobs Strategy—pointed out how operational decisions make or break the employee experience. She made a strong case for why the COO and the CHRO should be having coffee every week. I believe that thinking should be extended to connecting the strategies made in all the “silos” of a company.
I like Susan Cain’s insights about introverts, not just because of that important issue, but because thinking about how our templates don’t work for one group helps us consider how they might not work for many groups.
Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep is, dare I say, an eye-opener. Taking his advice can make a person happier and healthier. In a hazardous environment, it can save someone’s life. He says he gives himself a “non-negotiable eight-hour opportunity” for sleep each night. I now mutter that phrase when I turn off the computer or TV earlier than I otherwise would, and it’s improved my life.
I’m a fan of Robert Wright. His book The Moral Animal was very helpful when I was writing Power of 2. The title of his latest book, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, seems to be intentionally provocative, but most of us need some provoking to question why we keep banging our heads against the wall.
What has most stood out for you about work and how we work in this decade?
The social contract is in bad shape. Most companies are not returning in higher pay to employees the profits from higher productivity created largely by those employees. We’re bifurcating the population into a highly valued, well-compensated, insured, 401K-matched group housed in beautiful spaces and a lower-wage, buy-your-own-insurance, no-paid-time-off group who some companies would just as soon replace with robots. Although the “Great Recession” was a decade ago, it seems to have done lasting damage to the ground rules. It bothers me that we’re too often thinking about front-line employees as “FTEs” rather than people.
I am curious, does living in Minnesota give you a different perspective on work?
Probably, but being surrounded by other Minnesotans, it’s sometimes tough to be aware of how we’re different. There is a seasonality to work here that matches the weather. I write better in rough weather, so most autumns I’m planning a big writing project for the coming winter. Summer is short enough here that people are fairly possessed once the sun comes out and the ice melts. Minnesotans get used to working around the weather, so perhaps more than most we understand that the ability to get a job accomplished is a combination of preparation and factors outside of our control. After a long winter, you will sometimes hear Minnesotans remind each other, “Don’t make any major decisions in March.” There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere.
You offer 12 rules in Widgets, ranging from Get Inside Their Head to Be Boldly Transparent. If a leader or manager could only focus on one or two rules, which ones would you recommend?
I put that first piece of advice—“Get inside their heads”—deliberately at the beginning. Happiness at work is an individual phenomenon. Combine personality, career stage, collaborative style, past experiences, aspirations, and the dozens of other important variables bearing on someone’s best formula for working effectively and you end up with a unique puzzle in each individual. A great leader or manager can change someone’s trajectory in life. The imperative that he or she gets to know someone very personally is what makes leading and managing such fascinating endeavors.
Coming Soon: In part 2 of the interview, Rodd talks about what managers can do to keep their own engagement strong, hopes and fears about work as we move towards the year 2020, and curious elements of work.