Rodd Wagner: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Wagner, RoddRodd Wagner is the New York Times bestselling author of the book Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees As If They’re Real People, published by McGraw-Hill (April 2015). He is one of the foremost authorities on employee engagement and collaboration. Wagner’s books, speeches, and thought leadership focus on how human nature affects business strategy. He currently serves as vice president of employee engagement strategy at BI Worldwide. He is a confidential advisor to senior executives on the best ways to increase their personal effectiveness and their organizations’ performance. His work has taken him around the world, to the executive suites of major corporations in nearly every industry, to the Pentagon, and to the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz.

Rodd is lead author of two other books: 12: The Elements of Great Managing and Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and in Life. His books have been published in 10 languages and his work featured in The Wall Street Journal, ABC News Now,,, and the National Post of Canada, and parodied in Dilbert. He holds an M.B.A. with honors from the University of Utah Graduate School of Business. He was formerly a principal of Gallup, the research director of the Portland Press Herald, and WGME-TV in Maine, a reporter and news editor for The Salt Lake Tribune, and a radio talk show host. When not writing or consulting, he enjoys fly-fishing, snowboarding, and coaching youth lacrosse.

Here is an excerpt from Part 2 of my interview of Rodd.

* * *

Morris: When and why did you decide to write Widgets?

Wagner: I decided to write Widgets a couple years ago, as my colleagues and I took stock of everything that had changed in previous decade and as the first wave of our research made it apparent there was a compelling story to tell.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Wagner: Each of what I called “the New Rules of Engagement” reflects a rewriting of the old social contract. As I assembled the evidence for each chapter, it became clear the world had changed with respect to that issue. How, for example, can a company get its people committed to work on long-term plans for the organization at the same time it is laying off dedicated people and no one who remains knows whether he or she will be there to see the plan fulfilled? At what point, to cite another example, does an organization’s poking and prodding of employees in the interest of so-called “wellbeing” get creepy?

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Wagner: It took two chapters rather than one to lay the foundation. It took two chapters rather than one to wrap things up after covering each of the 12 New Rules. Otherwise, it’s largely structured as I envisioned. But the details – the examples and the particular form of the arguments – showed up only in the writing. Concepts and facts in my mind are non-linear. I can let them float around and connect in three or four dimensions in my mind right up until the moment I start writing. A book is linear. It requires I get each idea and statistic to get in line. These ideas don’t behave much better than a group of kindergarteners a teacher is trying to take on a field trip. I am always a little surprised, amused, or intrigued at how these things assemble themselves when required to do so. Under this pressure to organize my thoughts, or in the discussion of the draft with my manager or a trusted friend, insights emerge that never would have popped out except under these conditions. Those breakthroughs are always worth the price of admission.

Morris: To what extent do you develop in greater depth ideas introduced in your previous books, 12 and Power of 2? Please explain.

Wagner: 12 was written a decade ago. Except for the stories of the great managers I interviewed for the book, which are good examples regardless of their time, the science in the book is as dated now as the cell phone I carried in 2005 when I was writing it. Gallup has not changed its Q12 questions since 1998, a year before First, Break All the Rules was published. While human nature has not changed in that time, the business context certainly has. You can tell in Widgets that I am critical of Gallup and its many copycats for their lack on innovation in the face of dramatic changes to the unwritten social contract over the last 16 years. In Widgets, I hit the reset button hard.

The research Gale Muller and I did for Power of 2, on the other hand, grounded me in the science of reciprocity, which substantially influenced my research and writing for Widgets. It was a good launching pad for this most recent book.

Most important, while I was the lead author of both those books, one does not take as many liberties or speak as candidly when writing on behalf of two people (and on behalf of a company, a fact for which I was once slammed in The Wall Street Journal). Widgets is the first book where I am sole author, where I could communicate most directly and bluntly with the reader. Where the facts showed it necessary, I’ve contradicted what I wrote a decade ago, either because further evidence indicated the truth was something different or because the world changed and what was true then is not true now. Like that “best friend at work” question? Pssst! It really is a dumb thing to put on a survey.

Morris: Here’s a motivation issue on which opinions are divided – sometimes sharply divided. I doubt that leaders can motivate other people but they can inspire them to become self-motivated. What do you think?

Wagner: Putting all the responsibility for an employee’s motivation on him or her is an abdication of responsibility, and contrary to a wealth of research. We’ve all had good jobs and bad jobs and we know that we were more motivated in the good jobs. Just because there is evidence that people do bring a certain bearing to work with them does not mean that there’s not a huge range in their intensity that depends on the quality of their enterprise’s leadership and managers.

Morris: Many people see themselves as “widgets” and one of the reasons is that creativity and individuality tend to be discouraged in schools, especially in elementary public schools. Do you agree?

Wagner: That’s a bad rap. Schools are such different places than they were a generation or two ago. I find them exceptionally open to recognizing different talents in individual students. Schools are also in the difficult position of having to recognize individuality while at the same time needing to teach certain skills and knowledge that everyone ought to have. Business can afford to have people specialize. Schools must help kids master general knowledge. My teachers knew me as a hard-core science kid. They would be shocked to find out I became a writer. It’s a good thing no one waived the English requirements for me along the way.

Morris: Many managers see themselves as “widgets” and one of the reasons is that they tend to have responsibility for [begin italics] but very little authority over [end italics] those whom they manage, as is the “way” at Google. Your own thoughts about all this?

Wagner: Without speaking about Google, which is a topic by itself, sure, it happens all the time. The quality of managing is constrained by the little latitude given to those managers and the degree to which the managers themselves are looked after by their managers. I’ve been in a few situations where I had fantastic managers, but the leadership of the company was clueless. I asked my managers for their advice. They all said something such as, “There’s nothing more here for either of us. Let’s both get out.” And we did. Most managers will tow the company line up to a point, but eventually they choke on the words, because they care about their people.

Morris: In your opinion, can what you characterize as “The New Rules of Engagement” work in the military services? Please explain.

Wagner: Absolutely. We’re still talking about human nature. It’s often struck me how different the vocabulary is, but how much the concepts are the same. In many ways, the military is ahead of the civilian world. Pay is transparent. The path to promotion is much clearer. There is a system for recognizing achievement and sacrifice. The incentives for teamwork are nearly perfected in a way that would be the envy of any civilian organization. And the pressures are so much greater that the proportion of exemplary leaders is, in my estimation, much higher.

* * *

To read all of Part 2, please click here.

Here’s a link to Part 1.

Rodd cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

One site is aimed at leaders and managers. Another site is aimed at employees. Both link to my blog and, most important, to the New Rules index self-assessment where employees can discover for free how their job stacks up against the jobs of people in the rest of the country.

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