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Scientist Explores Elements of Workplace Well-being

By Amaani Lyle
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 8, 2014 – Social relationships and their associated mutual trust and investment are the cornerstones of strength-based leadership, a Gallup scientist told a Pentagon audience today in the “New Ideas” lecture series.

Partnered with the Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies think tank and presented by the undersecretary of defense for policy, the lecture was given by Tom Rath, who spent 13 years studying human well-being in more than 180 countries and surveying thousands of people in the United States to determine what elements make life, particularly in the workplace, worthwhile.

“To think about well-being and ignore what’s going on in people’s social relationships would be a huge mistake; other people matter,” Rath said. “The only thing you can get 20 psychologists in a room to agree on is that social relationships might be the single biggest driver of overall well-being, … and that’s got to be part of these organizational conversations.”

Rath explained that tackling major societal problems such as diabetes, obesity and overall health is the responsibility of both public and private organizations and their leaders, who he said should work to motivate employees and accentuate their strengths.

He cited the adage, “You can be anything you want to be if you try hard enough,” but noted the message’s flaw.

“All the research I’ve looked at would suggest that’s not true,” Rath said. “A better revision to that might be, ‘You can’t be anything you want to be, but you can be a lot more of who you already are.’”

Rath said his research led him to champion recognizing the individual’s potential and building on that.

“If the person you report to is not focusing on your strengths or weaknesses, there’s a 4 in 10 chance that you’ll be actively disengaged in your work,” he said. But when managers focus on strength, Rath explained, just one in every hundred employees is actively disengaged in the work they do each day. “It makes a profound difference,” he said.

And of the employees who are fully engaged in their work, some 40 percent are either struggling or suffering in their personal lives, he reported.

“If they’re doing everything perfectly and they’re fully productive in their job, have a lot of energy and have good ideas, you still have 40 percent who have extreme challenges as soon as they go home … that clearly impede their ability to do even more in the workplace and to have even higher overall well-being,” Rath said.

He added that the solution boils down to simple math.

“If you spend your entire life trying to be a little bit good at everything, it just eliminates any chance that you can be great at anything over the span of a career or life,” he said. “We’re spending 80 percent of the time developing weaknesses, [and] 20 percent of the time developing strengths –- [we] probably need to flip those ratios around.”

Among Rath’s more important research findings is that people leave bad managers and leaders, not companies. “They’re leaving that micro-environment, not the overall umbrella organization, so it’s hard to underestimate the value of great management and leadership therein.”

He explained that, on average, disconnects exist in terms of quality relationships between individuals in organizations and their superiors. Rath said his experimental data in Europe indicated that people who have bosses they consistently dislike over the years could be 33 percent more susceptible to heart disease and stroke.

“It might turn out that your immediate leader is more important to your physical health than the quality of your physician,” Rath said. “We need to think of management as being as serious and sacred of a profession as we do with medicine.”

In general, Rath noted vital and practical reasons for getting people engaged in their jobs and motivating them to make a difference in their workplace and personal lives as a result.

“People want stability, … but at the same time, they need a little hope for the future in order to be inspired and really keep going,” he said.

The next “New Ideas” lecture, featuring author Shaun Achor, is scheduled for 10 a.m. Jan. 23.

(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @LyleAFPS)


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