Tom Rath is the global practice leader for Gallup’s workplace consulting business worldwide and leads the company’s practice and research efforts in employee engagement, strength-based development, leadership, and well-being.
He is the author of four bestselling business books, which have sold more than 4 million copies. They include StrengthsFinder 2.0, Strengths-Based Leadership, and Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. How Full Is Your Bucket? is his first book, which has become a number one New York Times bestseller. He wrote it with his grandfather, Donald Clifton, who is considered the father of strengths psychology.
Rath holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Rath also serves as vice chairman of the Cancer Research Fund and is the keynote speaker for ASTD’s 2012 Learn from the BEST Conference and Awards Ceremony.
You have a master’s in psychology, so how did you end up in the employee engagement field?
One of the things I’ve learned in the last few years is that many of the real breakthroughs I’ve seen in the business world occur when you bring together important knowledge from two otherwise disparate fields.
Following school, I started working at Gallup on the technology around an application we call StrengthsFinder, and then got more involved with some of our work around not only strength and leadership development but employee engagement as well. Most of our work there sits at the intersection of what some people are calling behavioral economics now, which is the intersection of psychology and economics and business, to a degree. We study what drives human behavior and makes people tick.
If you look at the people we hire here at Gallup, I think it’s safe to say that we probably have more people with a psychology background than about any other. Sociology might be second. In recent years, we’ve started to bring more economists into the fold with our senior scientists. I would predict in the future we’ll bring more people in with medical backgrounds because that will be something important in the workplace.
Was the idea for How Full Is Your Bucket? something that you and your grandfather both came up with?
The book came about after Don was diagnosed with cancer and thinking about what he wanted to get done in his last year or so of life. He’d been giving talks to groups all over the Midwest (where he lived and spent most of his career) around this basic metaphor about a dipper and a bucket. It was something that always resonated with people.
I’d written him a long letter talking about how his philosophy, about those things, and the way he practiced what he preached throughout his life meant so much to me personally. He read the letter and was very grateful. After thinking about it, he said, "You know, why don’t we try and write a book about this whole bucket analogy?"
It was a big challenge for both of us. Our goal was just to share some of his core learnings over a lifetime with a lot more people than he’d been able to in a direct way. We got the first draft finished and he was able to read it right before he passed away.
The book became a bestseller and you went on to publish a second edition, and even a children’s edition. How did that come about?
After just a few months, I started to hear from principals and teachers in K-12 from all over the country. They were saying, "Oh, we want to use this in our school. It’s our theme for the year." I spent a whole season just doing keynote speeches at big kick-offs for large school districts across the country because it was kind of the thing in education right after it launched.
It spawned a team here at Gallup to help me to work on an educator’s edition for teachers, and then, eventually, an illustrated children’s book for kids to read out loud in the classroom and start to understand the metaphor in a much more direct way on their own.
It’s been really rewarding, not only for me but for a lot of us here at Gallup, on a personal level to see the impact that that’s had in schools all over the country.
Why do you think it was so popular?
The metaphor is so simple—every time you interact with another person that either fills your bucket up a little bit or it takes from it. I was worried at first when we started working on that bucket book that the metaphor might be too simplistic. But it’s the things that we’re able to bring down to the most concrete, straightforward elements that have the widest impact in the work that we’re doing here.
Your latest book is called Wellbeing. Why do you think organizations should be concerned about employee well-being?
If organizations don’t realize they’re in the business of improving well-being pretty quickly, it will break them financially. Global organizations need to get serious about understanding the relationship between their organization and the well-being of every person that shows up for work each morning to contribute to their company and their overall performance.
We’re seeing with a lot of organizations here in the United States that their biggest cost is soaring healthcare rates, which are the product of low engagement, low well-being, and of not helping people to think about their lives more holistically.
Organizations will have no choice but to be in the business of helping people actually lead healthier lives. Companies will need to show employees that they can help them to be a little bit healthier, even from a physical standpoint, if they join their organization instead of going to work for a competitor. So we’ve spent a lot of time in the last two or three years looking at the way employee engagement impacts very objective physical health outcomes like triglycerides, total cholesterol, blood pressure, BMI, and the like.
We know that when an organization starts to invest in the overall well-being of an employee, not only is that good for the bottom line, it’s good for employee engagement. You can also see how that improves the workers’ physical health, makes them more likely to contribute to the community, helps them understand how to manage their finances, helps them to have better relationships with their spouse, partner, or kids, and loved ones. It also helps to get their career on the right track.
Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I think a product of some of these conversations we’re having—about people needing to get healthier for the sake of reducing cost and so forth—might, over time, help to improve the overall relationship between employees and employers around the world as well.
What does the research show are the keys to well-being?
When we asked our original questions about well-being around the world, we asked people in all these countries, "What do you think will improve your well-being," in kind of an open-ended format. And the two things people answered with were the obvious ones: health and wealth.
But when we look behind the scenes with the hundreds of questions we’ve asked people over those years, what you see is that the two initial drivers of well-being are the quality of your career and the quality of your social relationships.
So at an individual level, I think people need to be a little bit more deliberate about asking who their manager will be and asking if they can see themselves having a good relationship with that person—well before they worry about specifics of a benefits plan, for example. And they need to think about the implications of a new job or a job they’re considering in terms of how it will affect their social relationships and the time they have with loved ones. In terms of well-being, those factors are a lot more important than all of us give them credit for being.
What is the one thing organizations can do to truly engage their workforce?
Organizations need to have managers that make sure each person looks forward to showing up every day at work. That may sound simple, but it’s not.
Finding the truly great manager who views each employee’s life as the end in itself instead of a means to a corporate end is rare, but that’s what the world’s best managers do based on what we’ve learned. If there’s one lever that an organization can pull to make sure that they’re engaging their workforces, it’s making sure they have the right managers in that role because that’s the lynchpin to create engagement throughout an organization.
What do you like to do for relaxation or fun?
I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old at home, so I don’t know what relaxation is. But in all seriousness, the best moments for me in the last couple of years in particular have just been when my kids are running around, laughing, and smiling.