Again and again, organizations are expending way too much effort, while still causing very little positive change to show for their work. More engagement surveys haven’t been the answer, so what is? Leaders need to foster the natural circumstances that make people want to do the work to create measurable results. Learn which key promises to make (and keep) to accelerate vitality and productivity in your workplace.


  • Many responses to breakdowns in performance assume that people don’t want to do the work, but in reality they’re just disappointed in the impact they’re making.
  • What if wholehearted effort is natural state for humans? And if it’s natural for people to want an environment of community, contribution and choice, then perhaps it’s also natural to create that environment.
  • When leaders keep the seven vitality promises, wholehearted effort is a normal part of the work. The promises are: presence, empathy, purpose, authenticity, wonder, timing, and surprising results.
  • Cultivating authenticity is based in truth: giving it, receiving it, and holding true to what you stand for.
  • Wonder is about resilience and being tough enough to hold possibility in the face of unfriendly conditions.

Too Much Effort for Too Little Return
0:13 Colin: G’day, hello, bienvenue, ni hao. Nice to be here, Leaders, Bosses and Bastards. Mickey, what’s been on your mind?

0:21 Mickey: Many things. What I’ve really been thoughtful about is how much effort we keep seeing in companies per unit of result.

0:35 Colin: Smart thing to talk about. We’re going to spend time talking about waste, value, what the difference is, and what causes one or the other.

0:44 Mickey: I want us to get into where we see a lot of big organizations unhappy with the results they’re producing and how much time, money and effort they’re putting in. Most culture change initiatives take way too much time and money per unit of impact. Change management in general has way too much time, money and stress for the rate at which positive change occurs.

1:16 Mickey: Most leadership development investments are so weak in terms of their return on investment that it has to be source of frustration for a lot of people. We see performance systems management, measures, a lot of effort, and yet not a lot of deeply satisfying results. Massive amounts of money that has been put into assessing, understanding and explaining employee engagement—compare that with how satisfied people are with their ability to cause employee engagement.

2:02 Colin: We’re not saying these aren’t good things to pay attention to. We’re saying: are we paying the right kind of attention?

2:11 Mickey: I mention these because they’re all places worth our attention and that people we know and admire care about. But the way we’ve gone after change management, culture change, leadership development, performance management, employee engagement means we’re spending too much time and money per unit of impact.

2:37 Mickey: If you want to take waste out of organizations and repurpose those dollars (and time) in a way that’s more beneficial for investors, for customers, for colleagues, we have to take those areas on and look at them because they’re places where huge time and money is expended.

People Don’t Fear Hard Work
3:01 Colin: I want to clear a bias: I don’t think people fear hard work. People don’t mind putting in discretionary effort. So it’s not about lack of resilience, it’s about saying, “What are the conditions that help me thrive at work?”

3:28 Mickey: That’s related to employee engagement. If you ask people why they care about employee engagement, they’ll talk about discretionary effort. We actually have found that’s a natural state for the vast majority of people who work in organizations. People enjoy giving wholehearted effort.

3:50 Mickey: The problem is not that people don’t want to do the work. That’s why a lot of responses to breakdowns in performance are really off, because they’re not dealing with the truth. It’s usually that people are disappointed in the impact they’re making. Not only don’t we mind effort, but we love to be tired from a worthy cause, having given all we have and seeing a brilliant result. The stress that comes from continually expending huge amounts of energy and not getting a result is what fatigues.

4:33 Colin: If you go back in history, we had satisfaction surveys, commitment surveys, and since the early 90’s we’ve had engagement surveys. They’re well intentioned people trying to understand something about the nature and conditions of work that have us be at our best.

4:53 Mickey: As well intended as that all is, there are some habits that have come from those surveys. One habit is thinking that spending money on surveys is the same as investing in employee engagement. That’s turned into a frequently thoughtless habit.

5:15 Colin: It’s a habit we’re now seeing in more organizations than we used to that have decided to no longer do, because they’re not actually returning anything. Those surveys become a small problem solving exercise rather than creating a great place for work.

5:38 Mickey: Still, people are out there spending a lot of time and money assessing something rather than causing it. We should notice that one does not necessarily take care of the other. What’s flawed about various tests that say whether people are wholehearted, for instance, is that many people relate to it by thinking, “I have to change something in people for them to be more wholehearted.”
What if people are already wholehearted and what do we have to do is stop the things that interfere with that?

6:25 Mickey: That’s something that intellectually people can get pretty quickly, but not practically—in terms of how most of the big organizations that we go into run, their habitual way of operating.

What Links Community, Contribution, and Choice to Surveys
6:43 Colin: Let’s talk about how we might change that habit or what can be done that has us pay the right attention to creating value in organizations. Last time we spoke, we talked about the notion of community, contribution, and choice: “If I feel like I belong, that people have my back, like my contribution is valued, and I get excited by what I’m contributing, and I have a place to make smart choices for myself in service of my community and what we care about, then I have a sense of vitality and wanting to contribute.” What’s the link between community, contribution and choice and what we’re trying to achieve with engagement surveys?

7:25 Mickey: That leads me back to something we said last time: We believe most large organizations are being run inconsistent with the nature of being human.

7:38 Mickey: It’s natural for people to come together and for them to feel safer and more satisfied together than they do separately. That’s where community arises naturally. And as we were talking about a moment ago, people love seeing a high return on effort. They loving seeing they made a big difference, and that’s contribution. And people love being treated like they have the dignity of making choices and being trusted that they are here for the community and making a valuable difference.
If it’s natural for people to want that environment of community, contribution and choice, then perhaps it’s also natural to create that environment.

8:18 Mickey: What we’ve looked at over the last 10 years are the ways that people inside of organizations operate that help or hurt that natural state of community, contribution and choice. If you want to see whether engagement is present, all you have to do is check whether people feel a sense of belonging and trust in one another, whether they’re pleased with the difference they’re making, and whether they’re doing the work out of their own love for the work rather than out of obligation. If that’s all there, don’t worry about engagement. Just go help them do good things.

9:11 Colin: Think about your own experience at work and what was there for you and how people were to you. Think about when you’re in a conversation with a boss or a colleague and you’re actually in a real conversation because you are present with each other and you’re in the work together. Being together and present is basic.

The Vitality Promises
9:42 Mickey: That is the first of the seven vitality promises. Last time we didn’t specifically mention those promises.

9:55 Colin: These promises are conditions that leaders promise to create.

9:57 Mickey: You named the first promise, which is presence. We’re fully with whom we’re with in the present moment. We think of presence as awareness without prejudice. When you have so much of yourself given to this moment and the people you’re with, your awareness of what is happening is rich and clear and heightened. You bring openness, a lack of prejudice, and curiosity. Presence is a promise to be fully present rather than being distracted, fragmented, annoyed and biased.

10:38 Colin: The limit of prejudice is empathy in the sense that if I am truly in your shoes I am aware without prejudice.

10:45 Mickey: Which is why empathy flows from presence, and it’s the second promise. The first promise is presence; everything starts there. And if you’re fully with another human being, you get pretty quickly they want to be understood and valued and for someone to appreciate “what it’s like” for them. There’s an extraordinary body of research over the past fifteen years where people have taken what we’ve previously believed to not be business, but “soft stuff,” and we’ve found out it’s actually affecting the P&L, the balance sheet and the cash flow.

11:35 Mickey: To say “I don’t have time for empathy” means, “I don’t have time to understand the motivations, desires, and capabilities of the people I work with.” If you say that out loud, it’s irrational. Especially in an environment where you have less supervision, there are people who are working under their own recognizance and separated from their formal supervisors logistically. They really do need to be understood and the more people are fully respected, understood and appreciated, the more it’s natural that they give that effort.

12:22 Mickey: Let me go ahead and say the rest of the seven promises, so I don’t belabor them and they come up naturally. Here are the seven promises that when leaders keep these promises, wholehearted effort is a normal part of the work: presence, empathy, purpose, authenticity, wonder, timing, and surprising results.

12:38 Mickey: The first is presence, which is real awareness without prejudice; the second is empathy, which is appreciating the purposes, concerns and circumstances of others; the third is purpose, that people have a reason for work they find important, inspiring and useful—why we work, not just what we do; the fourth promise is authenticity, that we live truthfully with one another, which we’ve found accelerates success through contribution; the fifth is wonder, the promise that you keep an environment of possibility, creativity and openness to curiosity; the sixth promise is timing, to help people get the most out of every moment while learning to answer the question, “What achievement is it time for now?” and putting resources behind that, so instead of doing everything you do the things that make a difference; and the last promise is surprising results, giving people the support they need to surprise themselves making the difference they want to make. Those promises are all keep-able promises and they give rise to this natural state of community, contribution and choice.

14:16 Colin: Are the promises learnable or are they just inherently true?

14:22 Mickey: There are things that I think are inherently possible for everyone, but we are not present enough in order to be true to the nature of them. For instance, everyone wants to be understood, so that means we probably have within us some capability of empathy. But if we’re not conscious and present, we don’t bring it to bear in the right moment. All of these promises are learnable, and they’re “wake-up-able.” For the vast majority of human beings, these promises are part of our nature and we just need to be awake enough to actually cause them.

The Three Facets of Authenticity
15:57 Colin: This morning I was buying coffee early and I bumped into the CFO of one of Australia’s larger organizations. He was talking about this notion of purpose, how it was taking so much time and how he was okay with that. What intrigued me is that he saw the commercial value in what would take a one or two year process, and he also said, “We needed a poet in the room.”

16:30 Mickey: There are things that have gone missing for a couple of generations in the way that we design supervision of employees in large organizations. Right now we’re working on taking the waste out of organizations and getting the design of work to be more consistent with the nature of humans.
The nature of humans includes the poet and the kind of longing and joy and sadness that everyone experiences all the time. The poets aren’t afraid of any part of being human and neither should an organizational leader.

17:16 Colin: David Whyte, the poet, talks about how great poetry is the truth. It’s undeniable truth. As you said earlier, the truth accelerates success. What’s that about?

17:40 Mickey: “What does truth mean?” is a question that’s big enough to not ever trivialize by finishing the answer. There is telling the truth: are you saying things as far as you know them to be true? There’s also being able to hear the truth. Another part of authenticity is, “Am I able to put aside my own bias, preference and prejudice to allow the truth to touch me?” It’s extraordinary how with our own ears we can pervert what is said to us, to help us avoid harsh truths. A third form of truth is staying true to something. Authenticity is telling the truth, it’s hearing it, and it’s adding to it.

18:33 Mickey: There are so many things we see inside of big companies that are tried but never authenticity devoted. “Oh, we tried that purpose thing. A purpose-driven company, yeah, one or two quarters we stayed with that.” Even when we ask what they did those one or two quarters, their efforts are not wholehearted. There’s a failure to be true to something.

19:02 Mickey: When you’re talking about authenticity, you have to—minimum—include those three things: being able to give the truth, receive the truth and stay true to something.

19:12 Colin: That’s important. I have seen way too often that people sometimes use truth as a weapon—colloquially called “front-stabbing”: “I’m telling the truth and it’s tough, but you have to suck it up.” It’s brutal, and it’s not the kind of organization you want to be in, even if you want to hear the truth.

19:40 Mickey: This notion of front-stabbing has been very hot of late. When you front-stab happens, that is telling the truth of my perspective without being willing to hear yours. You have to have both.
Front stabbing is making you responsible for dealing with my opinion.

20:10 Mickey: If you’re a real leader of community, whether you have a formal position or not, causing people to gather together and assemble stronger together than they are separated, then one of the things you’re really good at is telling the truth in a way that actually connects with what is valued and legitimate for the other.

20:33 Mickey: We’ve done a lot of work in this area, and there is a real art to being able to tell a connected truth rather than attacking truth.


12:45 Colin: What you’re saying is truth has to have empathy with it and the other promises we’ve been talking about, because they’re so interconnected. Some of them you’re reasonably good at naturally and some of them you have to work at, but the one for me that I really delight in is wonder: this notion that you can play with the possibility of a different future without evidence to start with, delighting in the childlike notion of, “What if we did this? How about that?” We’re seeing such rapid prototyping, experimentation and disruption that without wonder you’re going to lose your advantage.

21:40 Mickey: Wonder is a strength for me. Most people when they talk about possibility or creativity or wonder don’t speak of it in the domain of strength—and even toughness. Are you tough enough to wonder in the face of unfriendly conditions? Who can wonder well enough to turn disappointment into return on investment?

22:18 Mickey: Wonder is extraordinarily important. As we said earlier, these promises are not “soft.” To those that say they are: I would invite you to have a cup of coffee with me so we can discuss it.

22:31 Colin: Wonder in an act of oxygenation. It enlivens your work and all of the sudden a way forward appears to emerge.

22:47 Mickey: Let’s look at where we started this conversation: we see way more wasted effort than we are willing to stand by and not do anything about. We see all of these organizations with people trying really hard and ending up disappointed. Some questions that would be really good for anyone who is listening to think about are: “What’s interfering with my sense of community, belonging and trust? What’s interfering with my natural desire to contribute? And what might be in the way of me expressing a choice rather than an obligation?”

23:52 Colin: That picks up the last two promises, which are “What is it time for now?” and “Why shouldn’t we always be in the presence of extraordinary results?” I’ll come back to something you said at the beginning: the question is, “What are we causing?” Pay attention to moments of, “What did I cause just then, just now, and yesterday? What do I want to cause tomorrow?” Think about cause rather than engagement.

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