ALISON BEARD: I’m Alison Beard. This is the HBR IdeaCast, and we’re looking at how to find joy in our work.
At a time when lots of people are feeling burnt out, disengaged, and unhappy in their professional lives, we’re explaining with the help of author, Marcus Buckingham, how to change our jobs for the better. We’ve already talked about how to figure out what makes you happy and shift your job so you spend more time doing those things. Today, it’s about the team and organization, how to get everyone doing more of the work they love.
SPEAKER 1: What I’ve discovered over time is that my strengths are somebody else’s weaknesses, and my weaknesses are somebody else’s strengths. So I really rely on my staff and my interns and my attorney and my accountant to help me in the areas that are not my core competencies, so that they have not only a chance to shine, but also do good work for me. And because they are subject matter area experts in these areas, it takes them less time to do.
SPEAKER 2: I really love the people that I work with, the team is incredible, passion-driven and really wants to make a difference and be accountable to their work. And as president, I manage that team. So I am working directly with a variety of different team members, trying to make sure that they’re happy and fulfilled in all of the work that they do.
ALISON BEARD: Marcus’s book is called Love and Work. And Marcus, I’m so happy to have you back.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: I’m so happy to be back.
ALISON BEARD: We’ve talked a lot so far about what we can do on an individual level, managing our self, and what this process should look like. The next step obviously would be to try to scale that up to the team level.Yyou can do it as we discussed before, by helping other people find their red threads, which are those things that really bring them joy, get them into flow. But then how does the sort of higher level person – the boss, the team manager – make sure that every direct report is moving in this more positive direction?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, it begins with something, what we’re talking about here is teaming. It is interesting. You’re on the phone with CEOs all the time, as you can imagine, because people are asking about, well, what about culture? And should we bring everyone back to work? Because what about the damage to culture if we don’t? And when you really peel the onion on what the heck are you talking about, vis-a-vis culture? They’re really talking about two things. One is talent brand, which we can get to later, but the other one is teaming. Like, how do we get people to work collaboratively with one another, quickly, when they don’t know each other, some of them will never meet each other, and yet we do a lot of our work together? So how do we do that? How do we team?
One of the things that we’ve got to be able to do better than we currently do it is to team joining. It should be a discipline. If you’re a team leader and you’re listening to this, get good at team joining. What team joining is, it’s like onboarding on steroids. Onboarding is, hey, new team member. Here’s your password, here’s your computer, here’s how you get onto such and such. It’s administrative. Team joining is who the heck are you? We’re going to get together as a team. And if you could, we’d like you to share. And again, you don’t have to use the language of red threads. That might not be language that fits you. But what you want that person to share is what do you love to do the most? When are you at your best? What can the team super rely on you for? Give us some detail.
And then please tell us where you’re a bit of a deer in the headlights. Tell us where you struggle, tell us where you might need help from someone. Let’s just start people off knowing that on the best teams, we don’t have a whole bunch of perfect people. We’ve got people that need one another. That’s what a team is.
So team joining, building a discipline around when you join a team, we do actually need you to share some of your red threads and some of the other colors. And hey, I’m your team leader. I don’t expect you to have all red threads, because then I don’t trust you. And you know what? The team doesn’t either. It’s like when you say to a waiter, “What’s good here?” And the waiter goes, “Everything.” And you now don’t trust the waiter.
And so for you as a team leader, if you are one, start off with that. Bring the new team member on and then figure out the way that works for you and your team for them to say, hey, listen, this is when I’m at my best. And then over here, this is where I might need some help. Like that’s just so great. Now initially they might be a bit scared because they’ve never really done that before. So it might be good for you to have a session together, like a team blend session, where in order to make that new person feel comfortable, you go around the room and each person does that. This is where I’m at my best and this is where I might need some help. By the way, that’s kind of fascinating.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Because it’s not just for someone who’s joining an organization or joining a team. It’s for when project teams are coming together. That’s sort of the future of work. It’s the present of work actually.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Absolutely.
ALISON BEARD: And so anytime you’re getting together with colleagues who you might know, might not know that well, that seems like a useful exercise.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yeah. And look, when I was at Gallup, me and Don Clifton made something called Strength Finder, 25 million people had taken Strength Finder. That’s sort of useful. If you’ve taken Myers-Briggs, that can be sort of useful. I made another assessment 10 years later called StandOut. That can be useful, to say, give people a short hand for how you think or what drives you. All of those are kind of cool actually.
I would though suggest that that love note idea. Just write three of them. I love it when, and then finish the sentence. Sometimes we, as team leaders, I know I’m guilty of this too. You’re running so quickly, you bump into people pre-pandemic in the hallway, you’ve got some client you’re trying to satisfy or some project deadline you’re trying to meet. And you sort of think that by osmosis you’re going to pick up on that person. But it is like a massive eye opener to actually spend an hour. Let’s go, guys over lunch, let’s sit down. Let’s just all of us share three love notes, and we’ll share them with each other because sometimes we make assumptions and we shouldn’t.
ALISON BEARD: Obviously you would explain what a love note is before suggesting that as a boss. For fear of running foul of harassment policies.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yeah, I’m just using that. Yeah, you could figure out whatever word you want to use for that. It’s a statement. Who I am, what I love most, where I’m at my best. And the language there isn’t I’m the best at. I mean, some of this really gets into the language. Hey, team leader, don’t get your people to claim what they’re the best at. You don’t need that sort of comparison anyway. And that’s, by the way, one of the problems we have with our performance management systems, is we introduce all these comparisons, you’re a five, you’re a three, you’re a four. And as we’ve all discovered as parents, if we have kids, when you compare, you disappear.
So don’t have people say, I’m the best at. Say I’m at my best when. Or I love it when. That’s what I mean by a love note. I mean, tell people what your red threads are. Maybe it’s a red thread note and you’re just taking the moment to go, let’s go around the room so that we can let each person be seen. Oh my word.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And you mentioned regular check ins in a previous episode, suggesting that individuals might want to ask their boss for that time and attention so that they can begin shifting their work towards more of the things that they love. From the boss’s perspective, that’s something you should set up with every team member. And from the organization’s perspective, it’s something that you should require of every manager.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Absolutely. It should be the way in which we understand what a leader actually does. It’s such a simple ritual. But I mean, Cisco does 3 million of these check ins a year. It’s not complicated, it’s not expensive. It’s just saying to every single team leader, you need to be to talking with each of your people individually about the near term future every week. There’s something super powerful Alison about a week. Every single human society ever studied has a seven day week, which is weird because there’s no cosmological equivalent to a week. There is for a day, there is for a month. The cycles of the moon. There is for a year, Earth around the Sun. There’s no cosmological equivalent for a seven day week. It’s just that every human society anywhere went seven days seems about right. There’s something about a week.
And our memories are good for a week. Beyond a week, we suffer from the recency effect and we can’t remember what we’re doing. You are my manager, you can’t remember what I’m doing. So if you want to really help me, that check in is the core ritual. It’s 52 weeks of you and me with all the complexity we could ever need in my loves and my work, or my loathes and my work. And by the way team leader, that doesn’t mean that you’ve got to try to make everybody do only that which they love. Remember the Mayo Clinic research that says the 20% is a threshold. But if somebody’s sharing something they love and something they loathe, and you’re talking about this upcoming week, you don’t have to maneuver everything so that person gets 100% red threads that week.
Sometimes awareness is all that’s required. Sometimes a person sharing something about last week, they loved and loathed. They don’t want you to do anything necessarily. They just want to be heard and seen. And the frequent rhythm of that, they’re not storing it up for a twice a year individual development plan conversation. That kind of simple frequent … It’s not you telling them either team leader, it’s them telling you. What do you love? What do you loath? What are you working on? How can I help?
ALISON BEARD: I have to tell you, I think a week is too much. I mean, I think every other week is a good cadence. I feel like, and maybe it’s just because I’m mid-career mid career, slightly past mid-career probably. I have a great relationship with my boss and there’s a lot of trust and a lot of autonomy. So I feel like a week would be way too much for me, every week. Is that okay?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Each person is individual. Yeah. Well, when you run the data, once every 11 days, actually. If you’re checking in once every 11 days, all the other outcomes that we correlate to, engagement, resilience, employee turnover, productivity, performance ratings. When you get less frequent than once every 11 days, everything starts sliding south. Maybe not with you, Alison because everyone is unique. And as a team leader, by the way, a good thing to do would be to check in with people to see whether or not a week works for them. All I can tell you is the data suggests really strongly, that frequency matters. And the frequency that seems to work best for us, once every 11 days is how the numbers shake out. But in terms of the rhythms of most of our work, once a week is what that turns into.
I would just say with you, Alison, I know, and I know your boss, you just need to be really careful that you don’t end up going, now it’s once every three weeks. Now it’s once a month. How many CEOs have 15, 17 direct reports? Because they’re like, oh my people are so senior, they don’t need me. Well, if you’ve had anyone saying that, just go watch the documentary, The Last Dance where Phil Jackson isn’t saying, oh, I don’t need to talk to Michael Jordan. He doesn’t need me. That’s the exact opposite. He’s talking to Michael after every darn game. Because he knows that so goes Michael’s attention and creativity and innovation, so goes the whole darn team. So it’s one of the first questions I would ask, frankly, if I was joining a company and I want to figure out whether or not they take love seriously, the first question I would ask is how many direct reports does the CEO have? And if the number is north of 10, red flag.
ALISON BEARD: And so should that be the case for every manager. Should that org chart never have more than 10 people under another?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, in terms of this whole love and work idea, if you’re talking to people frequently about their loves and their work, their loves and their short term priorities and what they’re focused on, that is a mechanism for attention. And so when we talk about spanner control, we should be talking about span of attention. There may well be some managers who are such great individualizers, their span of attention could extend to 15 to 20 people. I will tell you that when you run the data on this at scale meta analytically, the chances that you’ll be in 90th percentile of engagement is inversely correlated to the size of the team.
So I’m not suggesting Alison that you don’t have some team leaders that are that good at keeping individuals feeling like they’re paid attention to with teams north of 15 or 20. I’m just saying it’s the exception that proves the rule. We should be thinking about org structure through the lens, frankly, of the check in, which is why the hospital example of one nurse supervisor to 60 nurses. It makes sense for the CFO. It just doesn’t make sense for the way that human beings work, which is why just last week I was talking to the CEO of a hospital, who’s got 13,000 people and 750 nurse openings and that’s not just the pandemic. If you get north of 10, then you better be a really good chess player in the sense that you, the team leader, better be able to keep that uniqueness. So all that wonderful unique set of loves, you better be super, super good at keeping all of that uniqueness in your mind, which a few people are.
ALISON BEARD: Isn’t it really hard to find enough people to love everything that needs doing on a team or in an organization? Those 750 openings, for example, this sort of seems like a herculean task for any boss or CEO to say I’m going to find all of these people. And every person here is going to have red threads, 20% red threads in their roles. That seems so hard.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, but not when you think about the sheer range of the human condition. How varied are we? We are extraordinarily varied. We’ve got these 5,000 Milky Ways in our brains and that’s not a bug. That’s not a design flaw. That’s actually what’s powerful about human beings is we’ve got this kind of range. So when we think about putting teams together. 50,000 years ago, we figured out that the team was the best mechanism or technology or context within which we make use of that kind of uniqueness. That’s the team, which is why frankly, another great question to ask if you’re considering joining a company is, what does this company do to understand what its best teams are like? Frankly many companies don’t see the team as the most important unit of analysis and discovery in a company. And yet they should because that’s what work actually really is.
So it lives and works on a team Alison and it does occur there everywhere where we see great teams, we see uniqueness and, yeah, we don’t see everybody having 100% red quilt. We don’t. But we do see intentionality around the fundamental design principle is each of my people loves different things. Each of them therefore learns and contributes differently. And I, as the team leader, I can’t pretend that’s not true. I can’t tell people their loves are a lie or irrelevant, which unfortunately in many organizations is exactly what we tell them. We certainly tell our students that in high school and college. But in the real world of business, you want to build a great team, your fundamental design principle has got to be curiosity about the unique loves of each person, because that’s what drives excellence. So if you want excellence, you’ve got to do it team by team.
For the CEO, yeah, maybe they’re sitting there all by themselves, five miles behind the front line and going, oh man, all these silly, darn, unique people. Although I’ll tell you this. About 20 years ago, I had the good fortune to spend some time with General Colin Powell and we were talking about human uniqueness and teams and this wasn’t about love. I wasn’t talking about that at the time, but we were actually just talking about individualization and he said, “You know what? That’s why the army has squads of 10.” People think the army is full of conformity. It isn’t. It’s full of squads. And the best squad leaders are incredibly curious about what the unique role is of each person on the team. One’s the sniper, one’s the explosive experts, one’s the communications. Person.
And yes, they’re taught to do all the different roles because in combat people get killed or injured and they’ve got to do everything. “If you want to build good squad, you’ve got to figure out who’s wired which way. And then you build a squad around that.” It’s like, oh, okay. Well, if he can do it, then any CEO can do it. The problem in most companies is they just don’t.
ALISON BEARD: They’re not trying. But surely the bosses and the companies that do, are better able to attract talent?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Absolutely. And this is where the fundamental opportunity is for organizations. I think what we’re going to see moving forward. Any CEO trying to say, you must come back to the office as though they’re dealing with a work force that’s the same as it was pre-pandemic. It isn’t. The people, in all walks of life, every company, have had a really interesting last two years, and they have looked at themselves in the mirror and they have seen some scary things about themselves. And then they’ve sort of bounced back or up and they’ve figured out who they are independent of anything else, independent of any rituals, who they are, and what they value, which is by the way, we see more employee activism than we’ve ever seen before.
So the best CEOs will have to deal with the fact that we are changed. We are changed people and we’re coming back to work saying, I’ve actually found quite a lot about myself. And I want to go back to a workplace, which at least accommodates that as a design principle. It doesn’t have to be perfect. They probably won’t use this language, but no one’s really saying I want to do only that, which I love. Like most of us are realistic, but we want the design principle to be, we are super curious about you, and who you are, and how you’re wired, and how you can contribute it. We want that. So if companies want to deserve the best people, one of the most important things that they could do is have a talent brand that is explicit about that.
We’re curious about you. We want to know what’s inside you. And we want to know how that can be turned into contribution. We’re fascinated by that. Lululemon does a really good … Not to pick one company, but when you first join, they want to know all about your goals and aspirations and dreams. And if your dream is to become the CEO of Lulu, that’s so great. But if your dream is to in three years, leave and start a healthcare brand, or a yoga studio, that is equally celebrated. So right from the get go, they’re like what’s inside you? What are you into? That’s a really, right now, a very compelling talent brand. It’s not vague. It’s very specific. And I think it ties right into where people are right now.
ALISON BEARD: And the organizations that you’ve worked with to make this happen, whether complete or in progress – I guess it’s always in progress. What concrete results have you seen in terms of increases engagement, which I think research has clearly shown leads to better performance. But hit me with all of your results.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, what you’re seeing is some of the stuff inside of companies where you can see when you do something as simple as a check in about what a person loved and what they’re working on next week, just that simple, you get reductions in turnover in the following 3 months, 90 days, 67% reduction in turnover, even during this whole Great Resignation thing that we’ve sort of been going through in the last 18 months. 67% reduction in employee turnover, 77% increase in employee engagement. Simply by doing just a ritual, that’s just one manager seeing, not even acting on. Just listening to an employee go what’d you love, how are you using it? What do you love, how are you using it? How can I help? It’s just that simple. So you can see really dramatic changes and quite quickly Alison, that’s the other thing. We do this once-a-year employee survey stuff, and then we wonder why our survey moves one percentage point up or one percentage point down.
You start looking at team by team, by team, by team, by team. And you find very, very fast movement deltas on some really important metrics like engagement, like resilience, like employee turnover. I would say this though, there isn’t any one company at the moment that I’ve looked at that I think has got all of this lined up perfectly. I do think we’re moving much more intelligently in this direction because the labor markets are so tight, but there’s undoubtedly more that we need to start. And then there’s a bunch of stuff we need to stop.
ALISON BEARD: And so what is your sort of vision of the future of work in which more bosses do this, more companies do this, and it becomes sort of the standard way of operating?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, if we’re going to move in this direction, the fundamental design principle needs to be that love fuels learning, fuels innovation, fuels expertise, fuels contribution. Loveless excellence is an oxymoron. So we need to build organizations where the point of finding out that which you love is so that you can contribute more intelligently. And then when you contribute that, that informs what you love. And that that’s really the mechanism of what works all about. It’s an advance, I think on Stiglitz’s stakeholder capitalism, where we go, there’s the employee and there’s the customer and there’s the investor and there’s the community.
The next step is no, no, no. The people are the point. That’s where work is going. The people are the point. The people are not a cog in a machine. They are not a mechanism for getting work done. Their loves and how they contribute them is the way in which we do anything. And if we keep moving in that direction, the other constituencies will be served, but there isn’t four different constituencies, all equal.
The most important constituency at work is the person, the people, the employee. We’re going to see more and more companies paying for lifelong education. Right now, you’ve seen the Walmarts, you’ve seen the Geicos, you’ve seen the Amazon, we’ll see more and of that. Yes, for pragmatic reasons, because they just want to be able to be competitive, but we are doing it, which is great because we’re looking at the person and going, their growth and development matters in and of itself. We’ll see more alumni programs Alison, where companies will go, we want to stay really to you even after you’ve left us. I mean, yes, because it might help us with our talent brand or it might help us with references with customers. But your worth doesn’t end when you stop working for us.
And again, I point to Lulu here. You walk into a Lulu store, you see pictures of people all over the walls of people who’ve left. They’re now called ambassadors. It’s like that’s really smart because it shows every new employee coming in, we see you as a full and ongoing human, whether you work with us or not. So we’ll see a lot more super intelligent off-boarding programs, a lot more super intentional alumni programs. You will see more choice undoubtedly about where and when and how I work. Because frankly, we’ve learned a lot in this last two years about how to use that mastery and autonomy intelligently. So we are going to see more of that.
You’ll see less emphasis on homogeneity and conformity. So less standard regulations, less standard competency models. You’ll see less 360 feedback tools to measure against said competency models. There’ll be less feedback which tells you which bits of the competency models you don’t have. All that’s … Less ratings because no one trusts ratings. You’ll have less cascaded goals because no one trusts goals and they’re blind to what you love.
So quite a lot of the existing human capital management infrastructure, which is really well intended, flies completely in the face of the unique loves that each of us have. They’re loveless. So we’ll see all of that go away in those companies that want to attract people who are prepared to take their love seriously and turn it into contribution. We’ll see a lot of that infrastructure change. And in its place, I think we’re going to have organizations built around small, lightweight, agile teams where the team leader is trained upon, trained upon trained to be super curious about the unique loves and loathes of each person. Again, not for narcissistic reasons, but so that we can be more creative, more collaborative and more productive together. That’s what you’ll see.
ALISON BEARD: It sounds like a great vision. And so I hope that we get there. Marcus, thank you so much. We’ve learned a ton. I hope every listener has found a red thread, and is focusing more of their attention on it, and working to make sure that their teams, and their workplaces are places where everyone is finding more joy in their job. Marcus, thank you.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Alison, it’s been a real pleasure. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Marcus Buckingham, author of Love and Work. Listen to the entire mini series, Find Joy In Any Job at hbr.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Ian Fox is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast, I’m Alison Beard.