What led you into the research field?
I was always fascinated by how you measure things about a person when they don’t really know those things themselves. And I was always impatient with generalizations about gender or race or nationality. I felt like the most interesting things about people are the differences between individual people. So, I got into research. I joined the Gallup Organization in 1984 even before I went to university to study social and political science.
I tagged along on my father’s coattails; he was in the business of trying to select top managers. He was the chief human resources officer for a brewing company, and he had 7,000 pubs and was trying to figure out whether pub managers had certain personality traits that could be identified before you hired them. I grew fascinated by the idea that you could ask questions of individuals and then their answers would reveal something about them that could be measured, and that what could be measured would reveal reliably something about their uniqueness.
Do you find that organizations “get it” in terms of using a strengths-based approach with their employees?
The reason you focus on individual differences is because each person feels as though they’re the most interesting person in the world, and we want to work for an organization that thinks the same thing. Despite your fears, despite your insecurities, you’ve got something cool and unique you’re bringing to work every day. You won’t always do it perfectly, but the process of your life at work is going to be one in which you increasingly make valuable dents in the world that no one else could make.
Unfortunately, organizations are designed for homogeneity despite the recent nod to diversity. The world of work has been a kind of weird apartheid for many years. We design competency models, which say that the perfect incumbent for the job has these attributes and we will measure you against them. We then assign to you a status as a high potential or, God forbid, a low potential. We’ve designed monolithic cultures. We say that our culture is like this, and the inference is that you must conform to that culture.
It’s annoying to the organization to have so many unique individuals with so many unique, not just dreams but so many desires and strengths and qualities and loves. The most pragmatic response to that teeming diversity of the world on the part of the company is to ignore it or crush it.
How can we take what we’ve learned through your research and the strengths-based approach and apply that in our personal lives?
There’s a lot of things we could do at home, but let’s start with work because work is something that we spend a lot of our time doing.
One of the first things you have to do is change your mindset to get to a place where you realize that the purpose of work is to discover what you love about you in the world. Normally, we think of work as a transaction; we think of it as a burden and, one click below that, exploitation. We sell our time so that outside of work we can do things that we love.
We’ve got to flip our whole brains around and say, wait a minute. In your life, there are lots of activities and situations that, for whatever crazy reason, invigorate you, give you energy, lift you up—little moments that are different for each one of us. Work can actually be a place where you learn which situations, which activities, which moments lift you up.
Your company wants that too; it just doesn’t say it that way. It wants that because, when you are caught filling a lot of your work life with stuff you love, then you are more resilient, productive, more engaged, more collaborative.
The way I talk about it, and will on the stage, is that you should spend a week in love with your job—meaning that you spend time finding those moments you love. If you can get into the discipline of that at work, then you can apply that to, for example, being a mother: Which particular aspects of being a mother do you get a kick out of? Which drain you? Everyone’s got their own answers to those questions.
The same goes for being a friend, a son or daughter, or simply a person in the world. The point for us all is that your world speaks to you in a language that only you understand.
What research areas are you currently working on?
There’s two. The first is that we’re kicking off a global engagement study. Given how important people are to work, and that we have a lot of fearful people around the world these days, I am fascinated by how you solve conflict. Weirdly, work is a great solve for that. When people work together, they don’t fight and kill each other, as we see going on in the Israeli-Palestine conflict; they get to learn about each other. Work is one of the ways to give people identity and meaning that doesn’t return them to tribalism.
Second, we’re doing a qualitative study that we’re calling a love and work research road trip. We figured, why not look at work through the lens of people who love it?
We say, “Do what you love.” What does that look like? Fifty years ago, Studs Terkel wrote a book called Working, which was just a series of interviews of people in America who did work—whether as an undertaker, jockey, or private investigator. The author interviewed them and just wrote down the answers; he didn’t draw any conclusions. That’s great, but it’s out of date. What does the world of work look like today?
For example, we’ve got doctors and nurses with levels of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] that are higher than veterans; we’ve got a massive burnout problem in the healthcare profession. We’re going be about 30,000 doctors too short in the next five years. Why—what's going on in the world of work?
What else can ATD 2018 attendees expect to walk away with after listening to your presentation?
My hope for the attendees is threefold. The first is that they will have a deep understanding of what work is for—that work is for helping them discover what is unique about them and how to contribute that.
The second thing is—and I could call them myths or misconceptions, but I’ll call them what they are—lies. What are the lies that we’ve been told, and that some of us are still telling, that prevent us from allowing each person to make their unique dent in the world? What are the lies that lead to systems, processes, to talent development tools that actually prevent talent from developing?
Picasso said, “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” Before we can build something better for talent, we need to know what we have to pull down and destroy.
The last thing is, what can you do in your own life? We can’t all change the system, so what can we do in our own lives, what can we do in our own teams tomorrow?
We’ll talk about how can you become a freethinking leader of talent. By freethinking, we mean a leader who engages with the real world as it is—who uses evidence about the uniqueness of people and then builds strategies around that; who rejects dogma and perceived wisdom.
If I am successful with my presentation, everyone will leave asking themselves, “Am I a freethinking leader or not?”