The daily grind? With Marcus Buckingham, going to work is anything but that. Buckingham is a world-renowned researcher and an expert on amplifying your strengths, rather than improving your weaknesses, to a create a more productive and fulfilling workplace. Buckingham recently coauthored Nine Lies About Work, released in April, about the data-driven truths that contradict long-held beliefs about how people work.

In advance of his keynote at #ISPA2019 this month, Pulse chatted with Marcus about his book, his research and how it can be applied to improve your staff’s performance.

Pulse: What drove your initial interest in researching the role of strengths in the workplace?

Marcus Buckingham: Right out of university I went to the Gallup Organization. I didn’t do polling—I did psychometric research, which is studying things about people that are important but that you can’t count: level of engagement, aspects of their personality, their talents. As part of that, we did 80,000 interviews with really great managers, and we were looking for what the best managers have in common.

Although each individual leader was very different, the most important thing they had in common was their awareness that each person on their team is unique, and that the challenge isn’t to make each person the same. Rather, the challenge is to use the uniqueness of people by capitalizing on their strengths. That’s the big difference maker. The best managers realize that time is much better spent trying to capitalize on who a person naturally is, as opposed to trying to change them into someone else.

That’s really what began my focus on strengths—it wasn’t a belief system; it wasn’t a philosophy. It was a finding from studying all these really great managers.

P: Tell me a little bit about your new book, Nine Lies About Work. Why did you decide to research and write on the topic?

B: Two reasons, really. The first is that over the past thirty or forty years, we haven’t seen any change at all in very low levels of engagement, purpose and productivity. I run the ADP Research Institute, and we just finished a nineteen-country study of engagement; although it varies a little bit country to country, on average only about 16 percent of people are fully engaged at work, despite all the energy we’ve thrown at engaging our people. And we’ve got record high levels of burnout, stress, anxiety due to work. In fact, your members are trying to create places where you can recover from those things.

So, something that we’re doing is wrong. I’ve been doing this for 25 years and like to believe I've been making a difference, but we haven’t actually changed anything systematic. The other thing is that we’re moving into a world of artificial intelligence and machine learning, and AI is going to be built into our human capital management tools—the tools that determine whether you get hired, what job you get, what goals are set for you, whether you’re promoted, how much you get paid, whether you’re fired. Everything is mediated by these tools, and all of them are about to be programmed with AI algorithms which will supposedly increase their intelligence at finding the right talent, developing it, giving you the right training.

And yet, when you really look at what an algorithm is, it’s really just an assumption turned into math. But is that assumption confirmed by the real world? When we push on these assumptions—like that people care which company they work for, or that the best companies cascade goals, or that people need feedback, or that people have “potential”—every one of those assumptions is provably wrong. Not theoretically wrong—provably wrong. Now is a really good time to go, “Wait, stop. Let’s take a look at our core assumptions.”

P: One of the lies you discuss in the book is that work/life balance matters most. Work/life is a frequently used term in the spa industry. Can you elaborate on why its importance is a lie?

B: Balance is a funny concept, anyway. When you look at the world, anything in balance is in an incredibly precarious state. Finding that one moment where everything is perfectly balanced, if you ever did find that moment—”my bank account is balanced, my work, my family, my friends, everything is perfectly balanced”— your first reaction would be to say, “nobody move.”

We think of balance as a synonym for health, but it’s not. It’s a synonym for stasis. And we don’t want stasis: we want to move. Anything healthy in nature is not in balance. That’s a bad metaphor. If you take a longer view, you realize that anything healthy in nature— whether animal, vegetable or mineral—is in movement. And healthy moving is to move in such a way that you can keep doing it. If you apply that to life, you ask, “How do I move through life in such a way that I can draw strength from it, rather than be depleted by it?”

When you do that, you realize immediately that “work” and “life” are fake categories, because work is a part of life. It’s not like you have work over there, and it’s bad, and life over here is good, and you balance it. Work is part of life. Friends are part of life. Community, family and hobbies are parts of life. The challenge is to know yourself well enough to know how to draw strength from all aspects of life. Which aspects strengthen you, and which deplete you? What do you love and loathe? We shouldn’t strike a balance: we should intentionally imbalance our lives. We should tip our lives, little by little, toward those things we love.

P: So, in essence, do what you love?

B: Interestingly, this doesn’t mean do what you love— that’s far too generic. It means find love in what you do. Find which aspects, activities, situations, contexts, people somehow invigorate you. If you love starting new projects but not finishing them, tip your life toward that. If you like challenge and confrontation and argument, angle your life toward that. If you’re a mother who doesn’t like getting on the floor and playing with the Tonka toys with your son—because that’s just not you—but you do love going for walks and playing with him outside, tilt your life toward that!

Own the fact that you’re weird. You may think you’re normal because you’re with yourself all the time. But you’re not normal: you’re weird. And you’ve got to honor that.

To put data behind it, the Mayo Clinic has research that shows that when doctors spend less than 20 percent of their time on activities they love, their risk of burnout increases one percentage point with each point below 20 percent. What’s cool is that if you go above 20 percent, you actually don’t see a commensurate decrease in burnout. You don’t need a job where you love 50 percent of the things you do. You just need 20 percent. Or, to say it another way, a little bit of love goes a long way. One analogy is that the fabric of your life is made up of different threads, and some of those threads are made of different material. They’re stronger, they’re invigorating. You don’t need a quilt made entirely of this thread—you just need to weave this thread throughout your quilt deliberately. The best spa professionals will know that too, whether as workers themselves or through their clients.

P: How does maximizing the strengths of one’s employees differ between a large spa or a small spa?

B: The first lie in the book is that people care which company they work for. And we hear a lot about “company culture,” and we like that story. It just makes for a good narrative. If company culture mattered, when you go inside a company that has a “great culture”— Google, for example— you should be able to find that culture. You should be able to ask people some questions about their experiences and find two simple things: first, that there is a consistent experience of working at Google, and two, that that experience is measurably different from the experience at another company.

But we can’t find that. It doesn’t exist.

What we find instead is that the experience of people at Google varies massively between which team they’re on at Google, and that there’s far greater diversity inside Google than between Google and another company. Once someone joins a company, how long they stay—and how productive they are—depends on the team they’re on, not the size or type of company.

So, if you’re running Canyon Ranch spa + fitness in the Venetian, for example, you have 400 staff. But you don’t actually have 400 people—you have 40 teams of ten. As the leader of team-leaders, do you know what happens on your best teams? Do you know some of the rituals and practices of those teams? Do you know who your best leaders are? Size doesn’t matter, because it’s all about teams. Think about all work as teamwork.

P: So, in the end, why do we tell ourselves these lies about work?

B: Mainly because we don’t like mess. We spend a lot of our time trying to tidy the world up, and, on some level, we are just annoyed by the sheer variety of human beings—the fact that they’re motivated by different things, build relationships differently and have different levels of energy.

One of the brilliant things that the best leaders understand is that the power of human nature is that each human’s nature is unique. And teams are a really wonderful way to make use of that uniqueness. That’s what teams are for: to capitalize on the fact that different people on the team can complement each other.

When you peel the lies back, what you get is wonderful diversity. And I don’t mean diversity of gender and race and age, necessarily—although you do get that—I mean diversity of motivation, thought process, relationship building, sense making, personality.

P: What’s your one tip to improve engagement?

B: There are three secrets to engagement: attention, attention and attention. That’s what drives engagement: do you pay attention to me and my work? My tip would be to check in with each of your people once a week, every week, for 15 minutes. Just ask two questions each week: what are your priorities this week, and how can I help you? Don’t offer a to-do list—you’re not checking up on people, you’re checking in with people. We have a ton of data on this that show if you do this every week, your engagement is twice as high as if you do it every other week, and so on. Frequency trumps quality when it comes to engagement.


Hometown: “Los Angeles.”
Favorite vacation destination: “Avignon, in the south of France, in late June when all the lavender is out.”
Personal motto: “ABC – always be curious.”
Favorite color: “Blue.”
Favorite food: “Penne all’amatriciana. When it’s made well…you can’t even speak to me.”