Breaking the Rules to Drive Engagement

A Q&A with Jim Harter

By Desda Moss Jul 20, 2016

While global leaders and companies understand the importance of employee engagement in theory, the percentage of engaged employees has barely budged since the beginning of the 2000s.

A new edition of the best-selling management book First, Break All the Rules(Gallup Press, 2016) argues that, with the largest segment of the workforce being made up by Millennials—a generation for whom engagement in their work and the opportunity to apply their skills are extremely important issues—it's more important than ever for today's managers to create a purpose-focused workplace culture.

This expanded edition, with a foreword by workplace expert Jim Harter, Ph.D., includes updated research conducted over the past 15 years as well as scientifically validated tools that leaders and managers can use to improve the engagement of their workforce and the performance of their team or organization.

Harter recently talked with HR Magazine about the book and shared some of its lessons.

Why is a strengths-based approach better at developing a successful employee than identifying an individual's weaknesses and trying to improve those areas?

A strengths-based approach entails identifying a person's natural capacity and adding knowledge, skills and experiences that build on that capacity. People are wired in unique ways, and each one of us can achieve the same outcomes through our own unique paths. A less efficient approach would be to assume that each person must follow the same steps to achieve the same outcomes. Ignoring individual differences creates inefficiency because it works against the grain of what each person has the capacity to do best. A key distinction here is in separating what is changeable from what is less changeable. Employees who say their manager focuses on their strengths or positive characteristics have more than double the likelihood of being engaged.  This is because their managers challenge them in areas of natural capacity.   

In the U.S., an estimated 70 percent of employees are not engaged in their jobs. Why is that number so high, and how can the book help managers reduce that number?

The number has important implications for the performance of organizations and the well-being of employees. Highly engaged teams achieve 21 percent higher profit compared to those with low engagement scores. The roots of low engagement rest in the fundamentals of performance management: setting clear expectations, giving employees the right resources and equipment, positioning [employees] to do what they do best, providing the right recognition, and caring about and developing them. Managers, through their own engagement, their ongoing conversations with employees (or the lack thereof), and their natural abilities and talents to manage employees account for more than 70 percent of the variance in team engagement. So, at a fundamental level, improving engagement is about leveraging the innate characteristics of managers and their employees, developing people management skills, and selecting the right people to become managers. The most progressive organizations have reset the expectations of the role of manager to be as much about people development as it is direction and correction.   

How can managers hire, develop and retain talented employees?

First, it is important to define what success looks like within the roles you are hiring for. What are the outcomes that define success within the role? How long does it take to achieve those desired outcomes? Second, identify your most successful people within the role and consult subject matter experts to define the responsibilities that lead to success. What are the experiences that successful people obtain as they progress within the organization? What innate characteristics define success within the role? The characteristics that differentiate between your top performers and your average or low performers are the ones to focus on in your hiring process.

The book outlines tips and best practices for managers, but what about employees? What needs to change in their approach to boost engagement?

First and foremost, make sure you know your own strengths. As part of the new edition, we include a code to the online Clifton StrengthsFinder instrument, an evidence-based, validated tool to discover your top themes—those you lead with in your work and life. Also, become familiar with the 12 elements that are important to building an engaged workforce. The 12 elements of engagement represent the type of workplace you should expect from your employer and contribute to developing. For example: In what ways can you continually work to bring clarity to your team and role within the workplace? How can you best leverage your strengths to maximize the efficiency of your team? In what ways do your strengths complement those of your team members? What are your future developmental aspirations? 


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