Leadership: Why seven in eight workers are disengaged – and what to do about it

LONDON — Tracey Swanepoel is in the vanguard of those shining a searchlight on exposing leadership myths – including where the blame for disengaged employees lies. Author of The Leadership Riptide, Swanepoel shares how she is applying lessons from the highly regarded book in courses which are enjoying rave reviews. In this special podcast, Thinkspiration‘s founder explains the basics of a revolution in leadership thinking, and the impact it is having in the workplace. To book for the next seminar click here. – Alec Hogg

This special podcast is brought to you by Thinkspiration, strategy to story. Hello, I’m Alec Hogg. Well, one of the most absorbing subjects for ambitious people is the concept of leadership. We’re going to be talking a lot about that in the next half hour or so.

In my own career responsibility arrived early and since my early 20s I’ve been on a mission to learn what makes a good leader. Partly through close observation of those I’ve interviewed but also, from reading about the lives of those who made a difference to the world. From Benjamin Franklin to Winston Churchill, John D Rockefeller to Ricardo Semler, Katherine Graham to Steve Jobs, but in all this accumulation of information one thing kept worrying me. In the corporate world leaders are charges with following mission statements that universally proclaim people are our most important asset. Yet, with rare exceptions the practice is precisely the opposite.

So when you cut through the noise in boardrooms it’s numbers and not people who matter most. Profit margins, not staff happiness is the priority. Tracey Swanepoel is in the Vanguard of those shining a searchlight on exposing the leadership myths. A former tennis prodigy with an international MBA, I met Tracey more than two decades ago when she drafted me in for a small role in her program of transforming a largely illiterate and mostly disengaged workforce at the SA mining company, Harmony Gold. Along the way she proved that supposedly unteachable people were anything but. Her methods were innovative and effective, and miles away from what was being practiced elsewhere.

In 2012, Tracey documented the lessons that she’d learnt at Harmony and through her private practice elsewhere, in what many believe is a seminal work on the subject. Her book is called, ‘The Leadership Riptide and How to Escape,’ and here’s the way she sums it up.

Essentially, it’s about leadership and really putting forward a different model, in terms of leadership. The question that I get asked the most really is, what does leadership have to do with the riptide? What are you talking about? If anyone has ever been in a riptide you know what happens, you swim and swim, and expend a lot of energy and you look up and you are no closer to the shoreline. That mental picture just struck me when I was thinking about and reflecting on my experiences in terms of leadership that we are doing so much. So much energy is being expended but we are not getting any closer to engagement levels rising, to people being more inspired, people being more productive and that’s having a really negative impact on the workplace and on numbers, (on productivity).

Since the publication of ‘The Leadership Riptide’ Tracey Swanepoel’s influence has grown through consistent media coverage including a five-part series on BDTV. This interest has most likely been because of the way she put her finger on how to address the great corporate challenge of our age – a disengaged workforce.

The figures that I’ve got, Gallup measure it and their measurements are 13% of people globally, are engaged, which means that those are the people that go the extra mile. They inspire, they take initiative, they solve problems – the people we love to have in our businesses, which means that 87% are somewhere on that spectrum of disengagement, which is actually quite shocking. Those people are, in really bad cases, dead wood. They are often actively toxic, or they are just there planning their leave, when they can escape, and they’re not adding value to the business.

So one in eight people tap dance to work?

Tracey Swanepoel

Yes, and the tap dance to work is exactly my vision of engagement. That’s what we’d really love everybody to be doing. It’s up to leaders to create the environment. Leaders have a very powerful impact. If people are not engaged in your leadership environment unfortunately, it’s not their problem it’s your problem, as a leader. So, the question really is so, what kind of environment do you need to create to get people engaged, to be inspired and/or motivated? If you look at the neuroscience and behavioural science, all of the latest research that is coming out, it’s very clear what kind of environment engages people.

The shocking thing is that in many cases it’s exactly the opposite of what we currently do in business. What science knows and what business does, are completely at odds with each other. I often think those low engagement levels are the root cause of a lot of problems that are plaguing boardrooms and puzzling executives. You hear conversations about bad safety, lack of productivity, cost overruns, even absenteeism, unrealistic union demands and for me the root cause of all of that is this lack of engagement. Look at it from a financial point of view. Think of paying someone a salary, let’s say 100, and you expect to get 100 in return. What these engagement stats tell us is that you’re actually getting 13 in return. Imagine going to Woolies and paying for your R100 groceries and leaving with R13 worth of groceries – it’s crazy what’s happening.

Knowing all of this encouraged Tracey to take a practical approach towards applying the principles and launching courses based on teaching these principles that she had articulated in her book.

The idea is well, if you want to be a leader that engages and inspires your people what do you have to do differently? That’s really what the course is all about – practical ways of doing things differently to create that environment. What comes to mind is there’s a quote by Henry Mintzberg where he says, ‘leadership, like swimming, can’t be learnt by reading about it.’ I think all of us are at fault here. We read and read and theorise about leadership. We actually have to do things differently. Even after writing my book, I’m very delighted, it’s got a great response but people have come to me and said, ‘how do we actually do this every day in our workplaces?’ So, that really, was the inspiration to say, how do we translate this thinking and even some practical ideas in the book – how do you translate it into tools – exercises that you can actually do with your people? So, that was our big drive is that in the course, it’s very practical. We actually learn about and practice and do things differently. There’s a real gap between knowing about it and actually knowing how it feels when you do it so, it’s very practical tools and we’ve had fantastic feedback and results.

And she’s certainly not exaggerating. Here’s some feedback that we got from some of those who have attended Tracey Swanepoel’s courses?

Hey, my name is Siviwe Notshe I’m 31 years’ old and for the past 10 years I’ve served as one of the leaders in a NGO here, in the City of Johannesburg. About 6 months ago our leadership team took on the Leadership Riptide Course and a few months before that we actually read the book and started applying the principles. It has been an amazing time of our team working together. Here’s one core thing that I’ve cherished and carried from the course. Every single organisation has the opportunity to create an environment whereby everything and everyone can actually win. That the idea that happy employees come at the expense of a happy bottom line is not true. But in fact, happy employees multiply the bottom line. We do that by creating an environment whereby each employee can find meaning in what they do. That they care about the bottom line because they know that the bottom line will make a significant difference in the community.

Also, the part of The Leadership Riptide teaches you how to create this tension between work, play, and trust and that every employee wants to have this beautiful dance between the values of the organisation and the leadership in the organisation. When you do this well, you create momentum that allows the organisation to win. So, the reason why I want to encourage each and every leader, regardless of whether you lead a NGO or you lead a corporate business environment – the reason why you need to do The Leadership Riptide course is simply this – your employees, your volunteers, your partners deserve great leadership. Maybe for far too long we have settled for something less. Our world is beyond the place of being motivated by just a salary. The Leadership Riptide course teaches you how to lead from a different place. I think the workplace is ready for a new option and this is what this course does. It gives you a new option to not only make a difference in the lives of the people you lead but make a difference through the organisation that you lead.

My name is Roger Pearce, I’m a chartered accountant and I’ve served on various SAICA boards, listed company boards, small/big companies and more recently, the last 12 years, have been NPO space specifically, Incredible Church that I’m part of. When Tracey first spoke to me about some of the principles of the book. I must be honest, I was somewhat sceptical and it sounded so Pollyanna-rish to me and subsequent to then, I have just been captured by so many of the truths that she’s spoken. I’ve had the benefit of actually her course twice and the impact has been very significant on me, in terms of my leadership and my ability to create an environment of great joy, great love, and productivity in the workplace. I think it bespeaks that recently I had to travel and I only had space for two books and one of them was Tracey’s actual workbook because in the workbook there’s just some incredible tools, The Riptide Tools, and just going into an environment – I hadn’t fully internalised these tools. Knowing that if anything I needed was these tools so, the book has been fantastic. The course and the workbook has been so beneficial, and so useful for me. I just give it big, triple thumbs up – thank you, Tracey, for the great work.

Well, those are some endorsements, aren’t they?

It’s really focussed on leaders at all levels. You don’t have to be a senior leader in an organisation. In fact, my definition of leadership is anyone that’s in a position to influence anybody else. Leadership is not your place on the organogram or your reserved parking spot. It’s actually about your level of influence so, it’s focussed on anybody that wants to improve that ability. We have specific courses focussing on women and on different levels is there are specific issues that are pertinent in terms of woman leadership so, there’s a little bit more of a focus in terms of that. We do mixed courses, we do team courses for teams in corporates, we do in-house courses.

The Leadership Riptide and How to Escape

But always applying the same principles that you write about in the book?

Always applying those same principles, yes.

And that’s to do with engagement. I suppose one can never have guarantees, but would you then be confident that those people who come on the course are going to see a difference in the way that their colleagues react in the short-term?

Well, one always hopes for that, Alec, but the feedback that we’ve had from the courses that we’ve done has really been all about that. People have come back to us and phoned us, emailed us, and said, ‘I actually can’t believe how well this works – I tried it and it’s just incredible the results that I’ve had.’ It’s kind of the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The feedback that we are getting is that it really works extremely well.

The workshops are held over two-days. After which there are three, one-hour follow-up sessions held over the next 6-months. We got some feedback from those sessions as well.

Hi, this is Vanessa, I work at JT Media Communication and Publicity Agency. I think any leadership course is important to test oneself. It’s also important to have a wide network of views because leadership is a lonely journey and sometimes it’s in the spaces you least expect it to get informed so that’s why I think it’s a good course because it’s an internal introspection.

I’m Petronella and I’m from Sandvik Mining. I’m a HR generalist and one thing that I’ve taken out from this course, The Riptide, is that I need to focus more on my experience and just to also encourage other ladies out there to focus on their experience and also, to get other peoples’ validation and from this I’ve realised that I can even give more and add value to my business.

My name is Phumla Dlamini from Sandvik. I’m the product manager. What motivates me most as a leader is to make sure that my team grows. It gives me great pleasure when my team excel in what they’re doing. As a leader, it’s important that you always motivate and make your team grow so, for me, that is what is most crucial – it’s what I’ve taken from the course.

And the lessons that are being taught are not just in business.

My name is Simon Lerefolo. I am the senior pastor at Every Nation, Rosebank. Our organisation has about 1 800 people that we serve on a weekend. I so enjoyed being part of the Leadership Riptide Course. There was so much to learn and so much to cement to lead a successful organisation. I’m very grateful to Tracey for spearheading this course and I’m looking forward to what it’s going to achieve and help our marketplace. There were a couple of things that I picked up from this course that were really helpful to me and helped me to keep our staff, our employees, and our leaders engaged. I want to just share a few of those things that I really enjoyed out of this course.

The first thing is building a culture where work is play. It really helped us to not think of work just as work, but you can have fun while you’re working. It is something that we know. It is something that we endeavour to do, but you actually need practical guidelines to be able to make sure that you can build a culture where people enjoy working for your organisation. Small things like, before we started meeting, we will do a check-in to see how everyone is doing but also share just some fun anecdotes of things that are happening in our lives. People now enjoy coming to meetings. Another thing that was really great for us was learning about listening sessions. Where you actually get feedback from your team. Most of the times, as a leader, you’re the one that’s giving feedback to people but this time you almost like sit on the hot seat on a hot chair, and people give you feedback.

The way we received feedback was through the listening sessions where we asked our team members what would they changed if they were to be the CEO of the organisation? What would they change if they were the senior leader of or organisation? This was really great. It was an awesome exercise because the feedback we received was incredible and we were able to implement some of the changes that they came up with. This is a brilliant course and I would encourage every manager in every organisation to take this course.

So, what’s got all these people so fired-up? I asked Tracey for her insights.

In my book what I propose is an ideal model of Futureco, and that is based on all those scientific researches. What do we need more of, and what do we need less of? For example, we need more play, less focus on drudgery of work, because play is about innovation, it’s about possibility mindset, it’s about solving problems, for example. We need more trust and less focus on compliance. We need more focus on, what I call love, other people call it passion, and less focus on the money. Often, the bonuses and money are seen as the tool to drive but they’re aren’t sustainable. So, those principles that are outlined in my book – those are principles that we actually get into detail about. We talk about specific tools for each one of those.

Read also: Tracey Swanepoel’s THINKspiration: Why trust is a must, especially in the workplace

So, if you’re a leader and you want to create an environment of trust – if you want to create an environment of progress, how do you go about doing that? Then for me, the golden threads or the underlying things that really flow through and are vital in terms of leadership are knowing yourself, so we focus quite a bit on that. Knowing your audience, and how to actually connect with your audience, and then finding the story in your message. How you use storytelling as a tool to get your message to stick.

Tracey’s next workshop is exclusively for women, an unusual formula but it appears to work well. Here’s some feedback from someone who attended the last all female event.

My name is Sarah-Jane Boden, I’m the founder of Content and Creative Agency SoleProviders, Collective. I think the course was really useful to me. The workshop was really useful to me because it provided me with some easy to access tools and tricks that I was able to take back to the office and immediately implement into not only my own way of working but the team’s way of working. We immediately applied some of the tools and I could feel the impact quite quickly thereafter. I think, also, having a place for women in business, to be able to come together from a whole range of backgrounds and industries, and really to be able to sit down and share whatever it is you’re going through at that stage, on that day, in that week, in that period, in that financial year, etc., with like minded women and to realise how similar we all are. How somebody sitting across from you might have a little clue to help you get out of the place you may be stuck in. Or you might be the person that gives them a hug on a day where they’re struggling a bit with an issue or with a problem. So, really, to have a forum like this, with like minded women that we can just sit down and talk to is hugely valuable to me. I think women in business we all share the very similar challenges, the very similar frustrations, and just realising that we’re all in it together is a wonderful feeling. I really recommend the course and I look forward to seeing where we go from here.

So, if all of this has peaked your interest and, like me, you’re not likely to wear a skirt in polite company, well there is another course available and the ‘All Ladies Course’ is on 19th and 20th March and then one open to all on 19th and 20th June. All details are on the I’ve got a feeling that the dynamic Ms Swanepoel isn’t going to be short of applicants.

Well thanks for joining us. I’m Alec Hogg. Cheerio.

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