In this Episode
If you aren't concerned about employee engagement on your team and in your company, you're making a huge mistake. Learn why in this episode of the Leadership 480 Podcast with Verity Creedy.
Beth Almes: Welcome to the 480 Podcast, I'm your host, Beth Almes and my guest today is going to talk about one of the toughest things that leaders have to deal with in their 480 minutes each day, and that is what HR calls engaging your team or as the rest of us really think of it, more like figuring out how to motivate the people to do what you actually need them to do. Spoiler alert, it's really hard. So we're also going to talk too about the flip side of what happens when people actually become too engaged and they enter into the danger zone of burnout. So, to talk with me today I'd like to introduce Verity Creedy, who heads up part of DDI's Product Management Team and has also led our sales teams in Europe. Welcome Verity.
Verity Creedy: Hey, thanks so much. Pleased to be here.
Beth Almes: So tell us a little bit about what happened the first time you ever became a leader.
Verity Creedy: Yeah, so the first time that I became a leader was in 2007. I went from being a project manager to being a project manager, team leader. And the spoiler alert is right because it's hard, and that was sort of the first thing that I realized. Lots of people go into leadership for the pay rise, actually one in five go into leadership for the pay rise, and it's incredibly hard. I was on a train, on a busy commuter train from London, and heard this guy bragging to his friend next to him about the fact that he was going to become a leader and the salary that he was going to get with that. And I was sort of in a sadistic way kind of chuckling in my head thinking I can't wait to hear the conversations in the next few weeks, because actually he did not fully realize what his new role was. And I think people are shocked to find out how challenging it is to engage people, to coach them, so that they can really see how their work contributes to a bigger organizational picture. So it really makes me realize, made me realize then in my first time as a leader, that engagement is not the soft stuff. It's the really hard stuff. And it's essential to have engaged teams or you're not going to accomplish anything and be successful.
Beth Almes: Yeah. I kind of remember being in that position myself of, first time I became a leader was so much harder than I ever expected. I kind of always had this assumption when I was younger, "Oh, I'll be a manager. Manage people, I'm so much better at that part of things". And it was so hard, all the questions and all the needs they have. And I can remember this moment of, we were kind of staying late one night and somebody... my director part asking me, "Well, why do I have to do this? Why do I have to do it"? And I'm sitting there going... And I was, at this point I was, "Because I made a mistake. I made a mistake and now we have to fix it". And that moment of honesty just totally changed everything. And I was surprised about how that really changed the dynamic when I started to get a little bit more honest and she was, "All right, let's get it done". I was, "Oh, okay". So as you were kind of in that first role, what did you learn about engagement?
Verity Creedy: I think the main thing that I learned was that, well I guess a couple of things. One was that I had gone from being quite a technical expert, in this case in project management, and then as I became a leader what I realized was it's not very engaging to just tell people what to do. So, I was chuckling the other day because my daughter was watching a Peppa Pig episode, and in the episode, Madam Gazelle, the teacher of the playgroup, asks them what they want to be when they're older. And the first kid says, "I want to be a teacher", and she's, "Oh lovely". And the kid says, "Because I want to tell people what to do", and she's, "Oh, okay". And then the next kid says, "I want to be a nurse". And she said, "Why"? "Oh, because I want to look after people and tell them what to do".
Verity Creedy: And so you can imagine it went kind of on and on like this. And I think that's what I realized was you sort of think as a technical expert that when people come to you with questions, you tell them what to do. And what I realized is that's not engaging at all. And engagement is a bit of a balance between the practical stuff of getting things done, making sure people are engaged enough to do things, but also the personal side that they feel valued, that they feel satisfied, that they feel motivated. And I also think as I developed as a leader really recognizing that engagement is also about diversity and about psychological safety as well.
Beth Almes: What do you mean by psychological safety?
Verity Creedy: Yeah. In today's world with the speed with which things are moving with the changes of digitalization, with just the volume of change, making people feel safe in their environments I think is critical to their engagement. That they feel safe at work, and therefore feel they can contribute freely and comfortably.
Beth Almes: And I think that's actually super key because I've been hearing this a lot too. People want to be more involved, right? They want to have a little bit more say in things and feel like they can give their ideas. So what's your best kind of tactic or trick? I don't want to call it a trick, a tactic to drive engagement. I'll let you say more, it's more strategic, right?
Verity Creedy: Yeah. And it is a tactic, I think it's something I really had to learn. I think the answer to that question would be, it is about encouraging that involvement by asking questions. So, finding out what really drives the individuals in terms of engagements. And I think if I was to go back to that first time leader in 2007, what I would say is a couple of things that, not making assumptions that everyone in your team is going to kind of be motivated by the same stuff, but also about the asking questions is both a tactic and a bit of a trick or a tip, in the fact that it really does work. So asking questions, getting that involvement, you do get the personal side of people feeling good, but you do get the practical side of seeing your teams achieve so much more than you ever would have even hoped for. Seeing them really exceed expectations, productivity, timelines, because you've sought from them the best way to do things rather than, as a technical expert, telling them what you think they should do.
Beth Almes: So, I want to capture something you said there a little bit that different people are motivated about different things. And one of the things that... you become a leader and in some cases you might get a big team right away and sometimes you kind of build up over time, and it's kind of everything I hear when people have kids they're, "Oh you had a baby". And everyone's, "Oh, wait until you have two, that's when it really gets tricky". And it's kind of like that with teams a little bit in terms of, you might start out with one or two team members and you're, "I've got this", and then you've got a big team. So, can you talk a little bit more about that part of the same thing doesn't motivate everybody.
Verity Creedy: Yeah. So actually I think it is... I found it was a lesson that I learned quicker when I had more team members. So when I had one or two team members, I did carry on making the broad generalizations that this engages me it will probably engage you, especially when you're all in the same function, right? We're all motivated around the same thing. And then there I was leading a sales team of 13 people, and that was when I thought, "Well, we're all in sales", right? "So go with the cliche, most people are here to make money. Most people are really motivated by achievement and by making good dollar bonuses". And what I realized is that really wasn't true. That on the spectrum I had people who were really excited about selling, to really get their product into the client's hands and help that client be successful. There are some who were maybe commercially had higher drive than others. There were some who came at it because they like the numeric side of seeing what they're achieving. They like having numbers associated with achievement, and sales is one of the best ways to do that.
Verity Creedy: And so, I think what I had to do was just really pause and just ask the question, what motivates you and what demotivates you, as simple as that. And then really listen to their answers and then I had to really adjust my style to that, to recognize that to engage one person was going to be different to engaging the other. What would motivate one would not motivate the other, and knowing what word was really important. I think the other thing that I learned with a larger team was about getting all the voices out. So encouraging engagement from everybody that they felt involved, that they all felt that their voice was valued.
Beth Almes: So that's an interesting point too about that adaptive style of leadership, trying to do something a little bit different with each person on the team. Do you think... so if you're the leader and you've got the right skills and you're listening, can the right leader engage anybody?
Verity Creedy: I guess I'm going to say yes and no-
Beth Almes: Perfect answer.
Verity Creedy: ... which is sort of a consulting answer, right? That's really crystal clear for you. So I would say yes in that you can do your best to create an environment that doesn't drive people to quit. So you can use some basic skills that will get you some engagement. But I would also say that not every individual can be automatically engaged. So sometimes you're going to have to make hard choices about that. And let me share an example, so I had somebody who had been working for the organization for a long period of time and then joined into the sales team. And really super smart, engaging individual who just was not engaged. Really loved the topic of what we did, but sales was really hard for them. And what I realized was it wasn't just that it was hard, it was that they didn't really want to be doing it, they weren't really motivated by it.
Verity Creedy: So they would ask for lots of training, help me be more successful, help me do this, help me do that. And they didn't have any of that intrigue or interest to want to learn it themselves. They wanted, I guess their boss to keep giving them stuff and to really manage them. And when I would try and ask questions and seek from them, it was just really tough. And so what happened, that person stayed with the company but moved out of sales, and then we saw that high-performance kicking in and we saw that high engagement really kicking in. And so, I think it is just that you can't just engage everybody, it has to be the right combination of them being doing something that they want to be doing as well.
Beth Almes: And that's kind of a, I mean that's kind of a happy ending story there in terms of they were able to stay with the company, find a better job. And it's so challenging in the circumstances where there's no other open job for you here, if you can't do this is really kind of the end of the road here. And especially hard when you find somebody who's so bright but maybe just good at something else. Maintaining that self esteem is such a huge challenge.
Verity Creedy: It really is. It really is. Because especially if they've always been successful and then their unsuccessful, that feels really hard, that feels really tough. And so, part of the kindness is sometimes having that conversation, even if there isn't another role available to say, "Does this still seem like a fit to you or not? Because it feels like it's pretty hard". Yeah.
Beth Almes: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So from your own perspective, what really worked for you to drive your own engagement? What did you respond well to?
Verity Creedy: Yeah, I think for me, and it's probably similar for others, is that I don't think it's a onetime thing. I think that sustaining your engagement in the workplace, you find different things that motivate you along the way. So firstly, I think loving what I do, it's why I've been with the same company for nearly 15 years because I really love what the company does. I think what's worked well for me to drive my engagement is to push myself and challenge myself and keep learning and keep recognizing that it's okay that there are things you're not going to learn as well and that, that can be exciting. I think the third thing is probably something that has evolved recently, and it's probably sounds a bit of a cliche, but becoming a parent as well has helped me have some perspective and given me engagement from a different angle of, yeah, wanting to... feeling really engaged and motivated to show how you can do both, and to show that to my daughter.
Beth Almes: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So kind of, you talked earlier about the personal side as well as the practical that's kind of getting to the, I'm finding fulfillment and I want to go home and I want to talk about what I do and I'm proud of it and I can manage to balance both of these things. Which also kind of leads me to the next topic, where we flip this conversation around a little bit, where we've been talking about the people who were struggling to get engaged, but we're also seeing huge trends of... I can't tell you how many articles I've seen about burnout.
Verity Creedy: Yeah.
Beth Almes: And there was even one in the Harvard business review recently, I think it said something like one in five employees is highly engaged and most at risk for burnout. And I also remember seeing, I think 20% of people in the UK were suffering where the highest performers were also suffering from burnout, and it's hugely problematic. These astronomical numbers of people who just want to do well so badly that they're kind of losing that other side of things.
Verity Creedy: Yeah, absolutely. And I've been... like you have been reading several different articles around it and the high performance thing that you referenced from that UK study, it is often those who are most high-performing and most perfectionistic who, let's be honest, as leaders, you love having people in your team like that, but they are the ones who are most susceptible to burnout and we really need to take it seriously as a concept. I think that's why we're seeing more and more articles around it. Really great author on the topic is Dr. Geri Puleo, she's done some really good articles. One particularly good one is on changewithoutburnout.com, really, really interesting sites. And basically in 2011 she did a Ted Talk and she had spotted a link between workplace burnout and PTSD.
Beth Almes: Wow.
Verity Creedy: And that's pretty significant because right now something like 190 billion, it's billion, I remember double checking that, and it was to do with healthcare that's attributed to workplace burnout. And the reason that we need to take it seriously is, what happens if this does start to become a medical factor, where it becomes a medical disability. Organizations are going to have to take it seriously in the same way that had employing someone with PTSD, you have to take seriously. So in Japan there's stories of the karoshi, I don't know if you've heard of this.
Beth Almes: I have, yeah. Yeah.
Verity Creedy: So it literally translates to death by overwork and it's tens of thousands of people. I think it's... I mean maybe it's 20,000 people per year are sort of dying at their desks, and although there may not be a comparison number in other countries, there are lots of similar studies. So, things in the U.S., the project time off, which showed the billions of unused vacation time that is sitting in-
Beth Almes: Yeah, we're pretty bad about that.
Verity Creedy: It's not just here, that's the thing. It's growing really broadly in Europe, in Australia and other parts of the world, that there is that focus on people who are those high-performers, doing all those extras and really helping their organizations doing that. But they are burning out, they are so exhausted from the achievements and from the pure volume of work that they're doing, that they are burning out and needing real medical support.
Beth Almes: Well and it's hard because you see... the advice I got as a kid, as a college student, was always kind of, the harder you work the more successful you will be. And if you are in doubt, work harder, and sort of the philosophy of you can always be outworking someone else, you might not be the brightest in the room, but you can always be the hardest worker, that kind of thing. So I don't know, maybe that was just me, but I think that it's a really hard message to overcome for those who want to achieve. And so, I read some of those articles about karoshi as well, and I hope I'm saying it correctly, but when I read them, I think what kind of struck me was there had been some young journalists, 31 years old, who had died from cardiac arrest, otherwise healthy and have put in something like 160 hours of overtime that month.
Beth Almes: But when I thought of that, to be honest with you, and as I read the article, I was, "Holy cow, 160 hours", but that was in a month. And what that really kind of means is if you're thinking about dividing that out it's an extra 40 hours a week. And where they were saying things get dangerous is putting in... they were talking about it in hours of overtime per month, whether it was 40 hours of overtime a month or 80, but when I thought about that, that was, 80 hours a week or stepping that back even to where they say it's dangerous of 50, 60 hours a week, I know a lot of people in that range. I know there are many lawyers, doctors, others, who are easily at that 80 hour week mark.
Verity Creedy: Lots of software engineers. If something's going to go down or something's launching or certain times of years, they're putting in probably even more hours than that.
Beth Almes: And others I know, I mean commonly everyday 50, 60 hours a week is not crazy. And I hadn't... when I saw it in the article I was, "That's a crazy amount of overtime". But then when I scaled it back it's really not.
Verity Creedy: Yeah.
Beth Almes: And then I think the other part of that is those engaged people when they are home or when they are away from the office, they're really not though.
Verity Creedy: That's it. They're still semi-present, but their mind is probably still on their inbox or on the code that they're writing or the reports they've got a file or, yeah, I mean I think what was really interesting around the, around the karoshi was the two aspects that they noticed as the biggest contributors. And I'll go to the second one first because it reminds me a bit of what you were saying. You're told growing up, do more and you'll achieve more. And that's what it talked about, was the number two biggest reason for it and for the organizational burnout was associated with the culture that the organization is setting. So what are you setting? Are you rewarding people for high-performance? Do you reward people because they've worked on their weekends? What tone does that send? But the number one reason was the leader. It's the relationship with my direct leader, and what that direct leader does to set a tone around acceptable and unacceptable work habits. So, when engagement goes too far and you start to see some of those high performers potentially burning out.
Beth Almes: As the leader then, what do you do about it?
Verity Creedy: I think one of the biggest things to do, which sounds so simple, but it's really about building trust. There's so much research out there, including some really cool stuff from the Oxford Group, which talks about organizations with high trust environments versus low trust environments. And the high trust environments, it's 70 something percent less stress, it's 40% less burnout, it's 70 something percent more engagements. And so, I think that's a big thing, it's about building that trust. And part of that is really walking the talk. So it's one thing for a leader to be saying, "You should take all your vacation time. And I notice you're working late", and things like that. But if what you're your team observe is that you work through your vacations and you're always working late, then it's quite hard to feel in an sort of psychologically safe environment that I can do something different from you.
Verity Creedy: So you have to really think about walking that talk. One adjustment I've been thinking about recently is I've got a fairly new team and I've been sharing with them, it's really busy first quarter of the year and then realizing how many hours the team are putting in. But also I can't say to them, don't send emails in the night, have the evening off, when they're seeing me send emails at 10 o'clock. So I'm not going to send the emails anymore, I'm going to try and model the right behaviors and be really conscious of my own habits, so that I create an environment where they can be, yeah really supportive. And then they can feel like they can get that balance and still be high-performing.
Beth Almes: I am so guilty of all of the things you just mentioned, so now I feel very, very bad and maybe we'll change. But incredibly guilty of all of those things-
Verity Creedy: Awareness is the first step. Maybe just changing a couple of them is a good start, but just what can we do to model that? Because I don't want anyone having death by overworking my team.
Beth Almes: Right. And it's those as much as you try to say, do as I say and not as I do.
Verity Creedy: Yeah.
Beth Almes: It's hard. It's really hard to do that.
Verity Creedy: Yeah. Absolutely.
Beth Almes: So then, to kind of wrap things up here, there's the question that we ask everyone when we talk about 480 leadership and those moments of high impact, tell us about a moment of leadership that changed your life.
Verity Creedy: I don't know that I can necessarily think about a leadership moment for me, but I can certainly think about leaders who have changed my life. And interestingly, I'd probably answer it differently now to how I would advanced it even three, four years ago. So three or four years ago, I would have told you about probably my first leader at DDI, super amazing woman who just had all the skills for motivating and empowering all of her team, including me. And the growth that I got with her as my leader. But interestingly, now as a more senior leader, had a kind of more profound moment of leadership impact about a year ago when senior leader had shared with me some of the really difficult decisions that he had, had to make. And he was talking about it sort of in a reflective way, the activities that happened a couple of years before.
Verity Creedy: But I remember the way he had described some of the restructuring that had been done and that feeling that he'd lost a little part of his soul when he had, had to have some of those conversations. And I just remember sitting there and thinking, "I'm never going to forget this moment", for a couple of reasons. I think one, it was a real leader to lead a conversation about the reality of how hard leadership is, to go back to the first thing I realized in 2007. But I think it was also the honesty with which he talked to me about, of what he'd had to do and about what being a senior leader can be like. And that I think has also given me growth in a different way, in a very different way. But it shows the impact of those really authentic, honest leadership moments when you're also maybe even being a bit vulnerable, that the huge impact that can have on your team to inspire them.
Beth Almes: That's an incredible story and I think those hard moments definitely are the ones that we often get overlooked. So we talked about it, the toughness of engaging people, the difficulty of realizing when you can't.
Verity Creedy: Yes.
Beth Almes: And when engagement isn't going to solve it. And then the hard decisions too of when you're realizing that you're at risk of... you've engaged someone so much, you're at risk of actually causing them physical harm or pushing them away because they're so burned out. This was a fantastic conversation and I really appreciate you joining us today Verity.
Verity Creedy: My pleasure.
Beth Almes: Thank you to all of you who took the time out of your 480 to tune in, and remember to make every moment of leadership count.
Leadership news straight to your inbox
Subscribe to curate your preferred list of leadership research, blogs, podcasts, newsletters, webinars, and more that comes to your email inbox hot off the press.