The Soft Side of Hard Numbers

“I don’t have time for all this touchy-feely stuff. I need results.” I’m sure you’ve heard or maybe even said something like this before. In tough economic times with competitors breathing down our necks it’s understandable that business leaders need to focus on the bottom line. We need to measure and control all those factors that contribute to a healthy profit. Things like customer loyalty, employee retention, productivity and safety all contribute to a healthy bottom line. They can be measured in hard numbers. How do you measure “Listening?” What does Listening have to do with anything? Who has time for all this “soft” stuff?

Why the Soft Stuff Matters

In their book, First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman outline the results of a 25-year Gallup study on World Class Management. The study cut across industries, countries, sizes of business, for-profit and non-profit and public and private sector organizations. In their book the authors focused on 12 survey questions that, sometimes counter intuitively, tied directly to desired organizational outcomes (in other words, “Hard Numbers”).

The Gallup study showed that those companies that reflected positive responses to the 12 questions

  1. Profited more
  2. Were more productive as business units
  3. Retained more employees per year
  4. Satisfied more customers
  5. Worked more Safely

Here are Gallup’s 12 questions:

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last 7 days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission / purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last 6 months, has someone talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had the opportunity at work to learn and grow?

What the Cows Know

The California Dairy Producers aired a series of popular TV Ads. In the ads there were dairy cows in a variety of situations. These cows talked to each other about different funny things always showing that the California Cows are the happiest cows in the business. Each of the ads ended with the tag line, “The best Milk (or cheese) comes from Happy Cows and Happy Cows come from California.” Without satisfying an employee’s basic needs first, a manager can never expect the employee to give stellar performance.

In essence that’s what the Gallup study (and several others2) showed. Happy (or “Engaged”) employees are 5 times more likely to deliver on an organization’s desired outcomes than those that are not “Engaged” and far more so than the employees who are actively disengaged. Employee Engagement (“Soft Stuff”), then, drives Customer Loyalty, Employee Retention, Productivity, Safety and Profitability (“The Hard Numbers”). Furthermore, these five organizational metrics are trailing indicators of organizational health. You don’t know what the numbers are until the close of the reporting period. On the other hand, if your Employee Engagement scores are trending up it’s a good indicator that your other metrics will also improve. Employee Engagement is more of a leading indicator of organizational health.3

Here’s how Gary C. Kelly, President, Chairman and CEO of Southwest Airlines put it:

We’ve always “hung our hat” on providing the best Customer Service in the business, at a low cost. Now, I realize that almost any company would (and should) say that, so, you may be wondering, “What’s the difference at Southwest?” The difference is this: Everything begins and ends with our People. If we keep our employees happy and engaged, they will keep our Customers happy, who will reward us with their loyalty. That repeat business helps our bottom line and adds value to our Shareholders.4

This “touchy-feely stuff” might just deserve more attention than you thought. Improving a manager’s, a department’s or a business unit’s scores on these questions has been statistically proven to improve that entity’s other metrics. So, what does all this have to do with listening? That’s what the next several posts will explore.


1 Depending on the type of organization, these metrics may be slightly different. However, the connection between Organizational outcomes of any type and these elements remains intact.

2 Harvard Business School study The Service Profit Chain, as well as studies by the Dale Carnegie organization and others.

3 Gallup, Q-12 Meta-Analysis, c. 1993 – 1998, 2006

4 Gary C. Kelly, “Making Connections”, Spirit Magazine, September 2013

The Super Power You Didn’t Know You Have

The other day one of my daughters asked me a random question. “What super power would you want to have, Dad?” I immediately thought of flying. I’ve always wanted to fly. How cool would it be to jump up and fly to wherever you wanted to go? So, without hesitation, I answered, “To fly!” She nodded, “Yeah, that would be cool!” she said, and moved on to ask the next unsuspecting family member.

Super Heroes have super powers they use to help people. They stop acts of terror, foil criminal plots, rescue people from danger and generally set things right. We love Super Heroes. But, after the movie is over or we’ve put down the book for the last time and returned to reality, we remember there’s no such thing as super heroes. There are no super powers that can fix the real problems we have at home, school, church or at work. Or, are there?

Do You Have a Super Power?

I would like to propose to you that we all have an underdeveloped super power. It may not make you faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but this power can transform your relationships, strengthen the effectiveness of your organization, and propel your business outcomes. This underdeveloped super power we all have is the power of listening. “Wait a minute!” you may object. “Super powers, by definition, are active. They DO something powerful. Listening is so . . . passive. You just sit there while someone else is talking.”

I think your objection has hit the nail on the head regarding why this powerful tool remains so underdeveloped. We misunderstand the nature of listening. In a Forbes online article entitled “Are You Using the Most Powerful Leadership Skill?”, consultant Erika Andersen rightly referred to listening as the “Clark Kent” of Leadership Skills.1  Because we see it as passive it seems mild mannered and . . . well . . . weak. That’s exactly what people thought of Clark Kent. Then he stepped into the phone booth!

But listening is powerful. Fortunately many people are waking up to the power of listening. Some have tried to overcome the objection to listening’s seemingly passive nature by talking about “Active Listening.” That’s helpful because listening is not something that happens to you (passive), it is something you do (active). Because it’s interpersonal, the power of listening is universally applicable. It will transform your business (inter departmental, intra-team, with customers and vendors), healthcare (Physicians and Nurses, Doctor and patient), church (boards, when conflict arises, visitors and new members), school (parents, teachers, administration, students), family, club . . . all of life because it transforms relationships.

Don’t Take My Word For It

Here’s what one contributor to Harvard Business Review’s HBR Blog Network observed:

My knowledge of corporate leaders’ 360-degree feedback indicates that one out of four of them has a listening deficit—the effects of which can paralyze cross-unit collaboration, sink careers, and if it’s the CEO with the deficit, derail the company.

For leaders, listening is a central competence for success. At its core, listening is connecting. Your ability to understand the true spirit of a message as it is intended to be communicated, and demonstrate your understanding, is paramount in forming connections and leading effectively. This is why, in 2010, General Electric—long considered the preeminent company for producing leaders—redefined what it seeks in its leaders. Now it places “listening” among the most desirable traits in potential leaders. Indeed, GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt has said that “humble listening” is among the top four characteristics in leaders.2

Listening, far from being passive, is powerful because it allows you to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Now that sounds more like a super power! Imagine the advantages of knowing how your boss or co-worker or spouse or competitor sees and understands the world.

In my next few posts I will outline the case for the power of listening as a direct contributor to hard organizational outcomes, reveal the necessary heart of powerful listening, and give you some exercises to help develop your listening power.


1  Erika Andersen Founding Partner of Proteus International. A Forbes article called “Are you using the most powerful leadership skill?”
2  “The Discipline of Listening,” by Ram Charan. Harvard Business Review (HBR Blog Network). June 21, 2012

Its Not Just Pizza Parties

I was in a meeting awhile ago with several Director level representatives of a healthcare organization. We were in the final design phase of a training program for supervisors in that organization.

This particular meeting was to discuss interview questions to use when hiring supervisors. The idea was that selecting a good fit is the first step in a successful development program. We had identified several categories of questions that aligned with the competencies we wanted the supervisors to develop. Of course, Employee Engagement was one of those categories. We were designing open ended, experience based questions that begin with, “Could you tell me about a time when you . . .”

I suggested a couple of questions and explained that those questions were testing for how the candidate had engaged previous employees. I further explained that the focus was on how the candidate engaged at the level of three primary intrinsic motivators: Autonomy, Mastery, and Transcendent Purpose. The specific Engager Dynamics the questions probed were, Solicit, Cultivate, and Inspire. Part way through my explanation, one of the directors said, “That doesn’t have anything to do with Employee Engagement.” He went on to describe his view of Employee Engagement which was having pizza parties and attendance award programs.

Don’t get me wrong, I love pizza parties and recognition programs. However, this interaction demonstrates a common misunderstanding of Employee Engagement. Leaders often think making employees happy with periodic trinkets equals employee engagement. I’m also in favor of making employees happy as often as possible. But, Employee Engagement is more than that. It’s about how you encourage people to invest their discretionary time, mental and physical energy, and creativity into improving the business. Follow some of the links I’ve included in this post to find out more.

Dynamic Duos – Another Way of Seeing Engager Dynamics

In an earlier post I talked about the Leadership Matrix where one axis is “Connector” and the other axis is “Challenger.” I said that a leader who is an “Engager” is one who is strong on both axes. This picture, taken from my Best.Boss.Ever. training, shows the 12 Engager Dynamics in a balance I call the Dynamic Duos (Yes, I was a fan of Batman and Robin when I was growing up!). It’s another way of looking at the Leadership Matrix.

Dynamic Duos

For each Challenge Dynamic there is a balancing Connection Dynamic. Achieving and maintaining that balance is how one becomes an Engager. For example:

If I am going to set expectations, then I had better train my people in the skills required to meet those expectations.

If I equip my people with all the best that is necessary for the job then cultivating an environment where they can grow into the best at the job makes sense.

If I challenge my people by inspiring them with a higher purpose of their work, wouldn’t I want to solicit from them what they’re discovering about how better to do the work and achieve that purpose?

If I set standards of quality and work to raise those standards, then I should recognize the people who contribute to that effort.

If I take the time to evaluate, or show the value, of my people’s performance, building trust in the organization is how that value is acknowledged.

Finally, If I optimize my people’s best skills, love is how I show they are more than a machine to be used.

Yet Another Way of Looking at It

What if the opening of new employee orientation went something like this:

“We will EXPECT a lot from you so we will TRAIN you and EQUIP you. We will CULTIVATE an environment where you can thrive. That environment should INSPIRE you and SOLICIT from you effective ways to QUALITIZE the work and RECOGNIZE those who contribute. We will EVALUATE your work in order to establish TRUST as the foundation upon which you can OPTIMIZE your talents because we LOVE you.”

Wow! If that were the opening of New Employee Orientation at a company I had just joined, I would be ready to engage. Even better, if that turned out to be the way things were at that company, I would never want to leave.

What Does a Leader Look Like?

In my last post I talked about being the Best Boss Ever. If you’re a boss you are expected to lead. But, not all bosses are leaders. Not all leaders are bosses either.

Are you a Leader?

You may not be the boss but you can still be a leader. Leadership is a skill not a position. We sometimes here the phrase, “Natural, born leader.” However, that is a misnomer. Some people confuse extreme extroversion or drive or intelligence with leadership. It is true that some leaders have those characteristics, but those characteristics are not the definition of leadership and not all effective leaders have all of them. Effective leadership is influencing people to accomplish things that are good for them and the team even if they don’t see it at first. Another way of defining leadership comes from James C. Hunter, in his book The Servant: A Simple Story about the True Essence of Leadership. He says that true Leadership is a matter of “Authority”. He defines “Authority” as, “the skill of getting people to willingly do your will because of your personal influence.” Both definitions describe a skill. Since leadership is a skill (or set of skills), it can be learned.

What Kind of Leader Are You?

Some people are said to be leaders because its in their job title. They may or may not actually be leaders. Others lead because it’s who they are. Their job title may be janitor or clerk, but they know how to positively influence people, so they are leaders. The skills that make up a leader are what I call Engager Dynamics. Those “attributes and energies that engage people and transform work” (see my second post, “Employee Engagement: What does that mean?“) fall along two axis of a matrix like the one above. Some of the dynamics fall along the “Challenger” axis and the others along the “Connector” axis.

You can plot your current leadership effectiveness on the matrix.

  1. If you are more concerned about having good relationships with your people and don’t want to rock the boat or upset them too much by challenging them, you may be what I call a “Pacifier.”
  2. I’ve seen people in leadership jobs whom I would call “Avoiders.” These folks tend to stay in their offices and send out emails or texts and make phone calls. They neither challenge nor connect with their people. These are “L-I-N-Os” – Leaders In Name Only.
  3. Then there are the “Dictators.” I’m sure we’ve all met these. They are very high on command and control and have a “Do-it-because-I-said-so” approach. People tend to snap to when this person comes into the room. They work diligently while the leader is present. What happens when the leader leaves? All too often, work suffers while the tension fades from the room.
  4. “Engagers” are people who both Connect with and Challenge their people. These are the ones who tend to be leaders even without the title. Engagers make a personal connection with people. Because of that connection they are able to challenge them to achieve beyond what they’d ever imagined.

What Kind of Leader Do You Want to Be?

I said you could plot your “current” leadership effectiveness on the matrix because you can improve your effectiveness by developing the skills called Engager Dynamics. In the next several posts I will describe each of the dynamics and then we’ll talk about how to improve in each one. So if you are currently a Pacifier or Avoider or Dictator, never fear, you can become an Engager.