A Bucket Full of Strengths, Friends, and Positive Strategies: An Interview with Tom Rath
by David Zinger
It is my pleasure and honor to present you with an interview with Tom Rath. Tom’s phenomenal contributions to a great workplace include: How Full is Your Bucket? Vital Friends and StrengthsFinder 2.0. Each of these books was reviewed in the 3 posts before this interview.
Tom is a marvelous author who has the ability to offer practical ideas woven with solid research in an engaging style. He writes his books in a way that makes them easy to read while also being powerful in practice. His books are essential reading in employee engagement. I hope this interview gives you a better understanding of Tom Rath’s personal and professional thoughts and approaches.
Tom, you wrote How Full is Your Bucket? with your Grandfather Donald O. Clifton. Donald is also the Grandfather of Positive Psychology and the Father of Strengths Psychology. I know you could write a book on this, and parts of your books have already done this, but I wondered if you could say in a few sentences what the legacy of your grandfather is for you personally and professionally.
Sure. On a personal level, Don was always helping me to see my own talents, starting at a very young age. The book How Full Is Your Bucket?, in itself, was a great example of this later on in my life. I had always been a “numbers guy” and presumed that I could not write very well. But after reading a long letter I had written to him, Don apparently spotted something (that I had not seen) and challenged me to write the book with him at that point. So even in his final months, Don helped me to see a talent that otherwise would have gone untapped for a lifetime. Don’t get me wrong, it took an inordinate amount of effort (not to mention a couple of brilliant editors) to polish that raw material into a book. But if not for Don’s encouragement, I would not be comfortable writing a short article today.
Then on a professional level, I would say Don’s greatest legacy has been in helping millions around the world to uncover their strengths. Don’s work has helped more than 10 million people (in over a hundred countries) to be more engaged in their jobs, which means they have a bit more positive energy to share with their spouse, friends, and children each evening when they go home. And my hunch is that this legacy will continue to grow even faster as each year goes by.
In StrengthsFinder 2.0 you write about the relationship between a manager, focus, and disengagement. If a manager ignores you there is a 40% chance you are disengaged and if a manager focuses on your strengths there is only a 1% chance of being actively disengaged. What makes this relationship between strength based conversations and lack of disengagement so strong?
To start with, half of it is just that the manager is paying attention. It actually cuts the active disengagement in half if the manager focuses on an employee’s weaknesses instead. So once you assume there is open communication, then making the conversation strengths-based weeds out almost all of the disengagement. As one CEO described to me, focusing on an employee’s strengths simply gives them confidence and boosts their well-being.
From your perspective and vantage point with Gallup do you see any research or anecdotal evidence that would lead you to conclude that the workplace is getting better at using strengths and having strength-based conversations?
Yes and no. Certainly in the work we do with our clients we see tremendous gains in the metrics that are most important to their success. Recently we did a study, which included 90,000 employees in 900 business units from 11 organizations. Teams that were led by managers who received a strengths intervention saw a substantial (12.5%) jump in their actual productivity numbers.
Unfortunately, when we look at our semi-annual study of the nation’s workers, we see no measurable change in the engagement of the average American worker. Hopefully as more and more organizations learn of the real, measurable advantages of a strengths-based approach this number will decline.
On a personal strength note. You do so much work with strengths. What are your top 2 or 3 strengths and how do you consciously use them in your work?
The one I lead with is probably Futuristic. I get a lot of energy from thinking about where things will be in five or even fifty years. Analytical is another one of my top themes, as I am constantly thinking through different scenarios in my mind. Then I am a perpetual Activator, to the extent that my wife has to tell me to sit back and relax a few times a day.
Gallup has received criticism in the past for the question about having a best friend at work. You wrote the book Vital Friends. Just how vital are friends at work?
Trust me, if we were just trying to sell people on an idea, we would not have picked that question in the first place. But the data led us in that direction as we searched for the key ingredients of a great workplace. When people have a “best friend” at work, they are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs. Without one, the odds are an abysmal 1 in 12.
At this point in your career, which of the eight vital roles of friendships stands out the most for you, and why?
I have been fortunate to have a few great Builders in my life, who have invested an inordinate amount of time in my growth and development. Can’t explain how much I admire people who invest even more in the growth of others than they do in themselves.
If I am a manager how do I try and encourage friendships at work between myself and my reports and between employees themselves?
Obviously you can’t just tell people to have friendships. I might call that the “creepy manager” approach…or at least it would be an indicator that the person should not be managing others. Being serious now, it’s really about creating the right environment where people have ample opportunities to form friendships. I think most people would be surprised by the number of companies that openly discourage close friendships today.
What does it mean for a manager to fill someone’s bucket at work?
While awards can be a form of bucket filling they are not the only way. It is often the smaller words and interactions that accumulate and have a bigger impact. The key is that these bucket-filling moments are individualized, specific, and of course deserved. Without authenticity and sincerity, it is sure to backfire. But it all starts with those brief, positive interactions. It is really those moments that matter most.
Thank you so much Tom and all the best on your future work. You have already given so much to us working in the field of employee engagement. Stay strong, engaged, positive and friendly.