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A Conversation with Marshall Goldsmith: Putting Employee Engagement Back in the Hands of Employees

February 8, 2011

At our 2010 Organizational Development Summit, I had the opportunity to sit down with best-selling author of Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, How to Get It Back if You Lose It and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith.  Marshall serves as an executive coach to some of the most successful CEOs in the world.  We spoke about “mojo” and what it means for today’s organizational development practitioner.


Dr. Goldsmith at the 2010 Organizational Development Summit
Dr. Goldsmith at the 2010 Organizational Development Summit

What is “mojo?”

Mojo is that positive spirit toward what you are doing. It starts from the inside and radiates to the outside. This is something that we can see as we go through life in almost every interaction. For example, you’re on the airplane. One flight attendant is positive, motivated, upbeat, enthusiastic. One is negative, bitter, angry and cynical.

They’re on the same plane at the same time with the same customers. What’s the difference? The difference is not what’s on the outside; the difference is what’s coming from the inside.

How can an OD practitioner use this concept of mojo in their job?

We’re looking at a very different view of employee engagement. I just went to a presentation at the National Academy of Human Resources on employee engagement and, number one, there was very clear research that employee engagement led to increased productivity and increased profitability for corporations, which, I think, everyone agrees with. The question is: how do you get there?

They talked about what companies had done to increase employee engagement and these were all good things, such as; recognition programs or training or empowerment. But what they didn’t talk about at all was what the employees could be doing to increase their own engagement.

My daughter and I–she’s a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern–are going to be doing some research on what employees can do to increase their own engagement and how companies can work with employees to develop programs so they work on their own engagement.

They can ask themselves, “What is meaningful for me? How can it increase the amount of meaning I experience at work? What makes me happy? How can I increase my own happiness?” And, “How can I become more engaged?”

It’s very exciting, and my guess is we’re going to get more long-term improvement in employee engagement with this new process, where you really put employees in charge of their own engagement, than almost any corporate program where the focus on the engagement comes from outside the corporation.

This sounds like a shift in strategy to really empower the employee and put happiness back in their hands.

Exactly, because basically it’s in their hands anyway. If you go back to my example of the flight attendants; they’ve gone through exactly the same program, same compensation plan, same everything. The key variable is not coming from the outside. The key variable is coming from the inside.


Marshall and his Mojo
Marshall and his Mojo

Can you give me a concrete example of ways in which OD practitioners have actually put engagement back in employees hands?

One thing we’ve started to do is measurements; where the employees are actually trained to measure their own level of engagement and they’re challenged.

They’re challenged to ask themselves questions like, “How can I increase the amount of meaning? How can I increase my own happiness? How can I increase my engagement?”

I’ve used a case study in several of the courses I’ve taught in large corporations to illustrate the point. That is, imagine you have to go to a meeting, a stupid meeting, boring slides, PowerPoint presentations, you don’t want to go, and you’re in a foul mood.

The meeting lasts an hour and you have to go. Option A is you could just be miserable and make everyone around you miserable. It may be a loss to the company but it’s actually a bigger loss to you. One hour of your life is just shot.

Or you can say, “How can I make the best of it? How can I increase my happiness, my meaning, my engagement?” When we encourage people to do this, you’d be amazed with how many creative ideas they come up with.

As an employee, what should I be looking at to measure my own happiness and my own engagement?

The first thing you need to do is start looking at yourself. There’s two basic focuses to help people change. You can, what I call, ‘Change me or change it.’

First, what can you do to change the environment yourself in a positive way? What influence can you make on the world around you to increase your engagement?

Second, if you cannot change it, look in the mirror. What can you start doing to change yourself? What can you do to change your attitude? What can you do to change what you’re doing to increase your own engagement? There is no generic answer for that; that’s a different answer for every person.

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