Why “Love” Is the Key to Career Success

Bestselling author Marcus Buckingham is a researcher and entrepreneur, and has a new book called Love and Work: How to Find What You Love, Love What You Do, and Do It for the Rest of Your Life. He says you don’t have to love all that you do, but if you have no love for any of your work then you won’t be creative, innovative, or resilient.

HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius sat down with Buckingham, who leads the ADP Research Institute, in this episode of our video series “The New World of Work” to talk about:

  • Love is very specific. It lives in the details. Managers need to meet frequently with direct reports to understand their small-scale, short-term challenges and joys.
  • What makes people feel part of a team? It’s not necessarily about whether people work together in person or remotely.
  • The dangers of purely transactional work. Doing something you don’t have any love for, just for a paycheck, can damage you as a person.

“The New World of Work” explores how top-tier executives see the future and how their companies are trying to set themselves up for success. Each week, Ignatius interviews a top leader on LinkedIn Live — previous interviews included Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooryi. He also shares an inside look at these conversations —and solicits questions for future discussions — in a newsletter just for HBR subscribers. If you’re a subscriber, you can sign up here.


ADI IGNATIUS: Marcus, welcome.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Thank you very much Adi.

ADI IGNATIUS: These are big concepts. Love and work. So, what does love have to do with it?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Love and work. Well, first of all, just to be clear, from a research standpoint, there is no data that says that everybody who excels at what they do has to love all that they do. You know the old cliche, find what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life again. Yeah, that’s not real. Well at least there’s no data behind that, but what we do find, and really from the last 25 years of my career, when you do a study group, focus group and you’re studying highly successful people in any role, from housekeepers, to teachers, to lawyers, to doctors, or whatever, and you’re interviewing them about what they do, you always find that there are moments, situations, or context that they love. They don’t love all that they do, but they do find love in what they do.

That’s the challenge for all of us, and it’s not once a month. This is an everyday thing. In fact, if you look at all the questions that might separate high-performing people from low-performing people, yes, people want a sense of mission. They want recognition. They want development, but the two most discriminating questions in terms of high-performing and low-performing is, do I have a chance to use my strengths every day at work? And was I excited to go to work every day last week? There’s a frequency and an everydayness to finding love in what you do. That’s really what the point of the book was, is to go, you don’t have to love all you do, but if you have a working situation where there’s no love in it, you won’t be creative. You won’t innovate. You won’t be resilient. All the outcomes that we want, you won’t get without love.


ADI IGNATIUS: That sounds great. I’m willing to remake my career along those lines, but I’ve met people who just have this clear delineation, this separation between the life they love and the work they do, but they’re really good at their jobs. They come in, they do a great job, and then it’s like, “Five o’clock, I’m out of here.” Isn’t that also a manifestation of successful work?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well yes, and you hear that of course in work-life balance. I go to work. I’m not expecting work to love me back. Work isn’t family. It’s transactional. I go in, I sell my time and my talent, and I get the money, and I go home. I provide for the people that I love. It’s work-life balance. But if you look out in the real world, Adi, nothing healthy in nature is balanced. Everything’s moving. So, health in general is motion. It’s how do you move through the environments and draw nourishment from those environments? Well for humans, one of those big environments is work. Not all. You’ve got other domains of your life, but one of them is work. You spend 40, 50, 60 hours a week doing something. What we know from understanding people that are excelling at their job, when they’re doing something that they love, the chemical cocktail in your brain, the anandamide, the vasopressin, the norepinephrine, the dopamine, that chemical cocktail looks almost exactly like when you’re in love with someone.

We know when you are doing something that you love, it’s like your neocortex is dysregulated. You’re more open to new ideas, new innovations, and creativity. So all the stuff that we want from our work, the opportunity to feel like we are ourselves, the opportunity to open our minds to broaden, and build, and grow, all those only happen when you’re doing something that you love. You could, I guess, have 50 hours of lovelessness, and you make a little trade for yourself where you go, “Well, look, I’m going to suck it up here so that I can provide over here.” But it’s a really bad calculus, a) because you look at the most successful people, they don’t do that. And b) love’s a force. It needs to be expressed, and if you go to work and it’s blocked, that’s not neutral. Over time, you become damaged by that, and the people that feel the damage most are the people at home. It’s not like you’re taking your personal life to work. No, you’re taking your lovelessness home. These people feel it. It’s not as though you have to have a life full of love at work, but if your entire 50 hours a week is, as you said, filled with competency but no appetite, no joy, no passion, no love, then you’re a lesser human over time. It just drags you down.

ADI IGNATIUS: I think there are companies who have tried to deal with this problem, this lack of full engagement, passion, love, whatever you call it, by empowering their workers. We empower them at the front lines, and that will achieve better results, and will make people feel, “Okay, I am valued because I’m empowered to have flexibility in how I handle situations.” Is that what you’re talking about, or is it something else?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Certainly that direction is a good direction to go in, and more and more, the way that technology works of course, is that we’re automating some of the rote functions of most jobs. So you think about where technology fits in, indeed where AI and machine learning fits in, that does more and more apply to the parts of our jobs that are routine, thus leaving a lot more room for maneuver for many people in many jobs to use their judgment, to use their emotional intelligence, to use their authentic connection with a customer or a colleague. All of that is good, no question. But if you look at the way that we’ve built our human capital management systems inside companies, we haven’t embraced the idea.

By the way, if you took 30 emergency room nurses, and you dove deep into what is it that you actually love in what you do? They’re all great. It’s not that they all love the same things. They’re all different. They’re all unique in terms of what drives them, in terms of where they learn best, in terms of how they best give care, and what you would really want in a human capital system is something that went, those loves of yours, a) they’re real, b) they’re really interesting, and we’d like to figure out ways, not that you do it all the time, but we’d like you to figure out ways in which you can express them at work every day in some way.

By the way, it appears that 20% is the threshold number. If you’ve got 20% of your activities in a day that are things that you love, you are far less likely to burn out, far less likely to attrit, far less likely to have all those negative outcomes of lost work days, and so forth. 20% is a good number. What you’d want is a human capital system that tries to help you find out what you love and express it, share it, I don’t know, with your teammates. We don’t see that at all. We see models of skills you are supposed to have. Competencies you’re supposed to have. Measurements of performance reviews against those competencies, which then expose your gaps, and then we basically say to you, “Success for you in this job is how closely you fit the model. By the way, we defined the model before you walked in. The model has nothing to do with who you are at all.” You are supposed to match the model, which is understandable in the sense that you want everybody in the same job to deliver the same outcomes. There’s a minimum requirement, but we’ve taken it beyond that. So that basically your unique loves and everything that you felt was you about you, when you come into work, it’s not just irrelevant to your performance, it’s an impediment to you hitting the performance criteria that we’ve established.

It’s almost like we’ve said, Adi, that your uniqueness is a bug, not a feature, and when you come to work, and over the years, all the way through college, this is true too, but anyway, at work, you are basically told to put whatever your unique loves are aside, and try to match the model that we defined before you walked in the door.

ADI IGNATIUS: Let me push on that a little bit. I’m an editor. I have teams of editors who report to me. My hope is that they will edit things very successfully. But here’s a person, and his loves are motorcycles and coin collecting. What do I do with that? I want him to be a great editor.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, a life with more love in it is a jolly good thing. If he’s got a hobby with motorcycles and coin collecting, and he’s not good enough at coin collecting to quit your job and go be a professional coin collector, if there is such a thing, that’s fine. That’s called a hobby. A lot of us have things that we love that we’re not good enough actually to be paid for. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a hobby, and a hobby is a love-bringing thing. So more love in your life, great. Though, if you are leading your team of editors well, one of the questions that should be of interest to you, and I’m sure it is, is each one of them going, “What is it about what you do that you love? When does time fly by for you as an editor? When for you, do you find yourself positively looking forward to something?” And you probably should know that about them because for them that’s part of the nourishment that they bring to their work.

And as you know, with your ten editors or whatever, they’re all really different. And so, as you’re thinking about assignments, and you’re thinking about ways in which you want to get them to do more or do better, starting with that which they love and their understanding of it, and what they’ve shared with you, is a really interesting way to help someone basically contribute, not only contribute over their best, but do it in such a way that they get the nourishment to keep doing it. Their loves are like appetites and they’re different.

And that’s a good example, ten editors. Well, they’re just editors. No. They’re ten individuals who happen to be editors. And your job of course, is to see them and then want them not to be better as in, “I’m going to fix you all so that you’re one perfect homogenous editor,” but to make them bigger. You want them to come into HBR and then go, “Okay, what’s your unique contribution?” If you don’t actually talk to them about that which they love in that conversation, you’re missing one of the most important raw materials of their contribution. Not the only one, but you’re missing a big one.

ADI IGNATIUS: This moment we’re in now, whether it’s the great resignation or the great reshuffle: to you, is that a manifestation of the lack of empathetic leadership of love in the workplace that’s driving people either out or to look for new opportunities?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Whether we call it the great resignation or the great reshuffle, undoubtedly, over the last two and a half, three years, we are changed people. For me, I sold my company, I lost my dad, I left my marriage, I had the same pandemic experience that many people did where you look in the mirror and you go, “Who the heck am I? And what sort of mark am I trying to leave?” And some days, for many of us, the answer’s pretty bleak. You’re like, “What am I doing?” And other days you sort of go, “No, no, no, no. I’m here for a really short time. I want to try to do something that matters.” And for many, many, many millions of us, we’ve come out of the pandemic and gone, “I’m not a cog in a machine. I’m me. And I’ve had a really deep relationship with me over the last two years.”

Any CEO that thinks, “Oh, just press rewind. And then we’ll start again. And we’ll just go back to normal because normal was so great.” But for many of us, as we’ve seen in data relating to engagement, relating to resilience, normal wasn’t so [great]. Even pre-pandemic.

By the way, pre-pandemic, we had a burnout problem with doctors and nurses. It wasn’t the pandemic that created it. Work wasn’t really working for us pre-pandemic. Then the pandemic turned it up to 11 and then we sort of come out and go, “Okay, look, we’ve got about 1.8, 1.9 openings for every person applying. So I’ve now got a bit of power and I want to join a place that actually–not in a soft woo woo way–but does see me and is interested in what I love to do and how I can contribute it.”

Not that everything should be individualistic. It’s not about narcissism. It’s about contribution. So we’ve come out of this pandemic with a lot of us going, I think myself included, probably you included, going, “What is the unique dent I’m going to make here? And is there a company out there that is actually going to build their talent brand around that?” Not that everyone’s skipping to work. The whole thing about they call it work for a reason, right? But I’m not going to go there and be emptied out. I’m just not.

For those companies who want to be the ones that attract the one person when they’ve got almost two job openings available to them, if the companies that want to really draw me in, they’ve got to speak directly to my. Sorry, but I’ll say it. They’ve got to speak directly to my heart. Are you really genuinely interested in me?

By the way, dear hospitals, if your org structure is one nurse supervisor to 60 nurses, so you got that poor nurse supervisor’s going to try to pay attention to the heart? You said ten editors, 60 nurses, how can that poor nurse supervisor even know their middle name or whether they’re married? Let alone, what their unique loves about nursing are.

So it’s going to push companies to look at things like what are managers doing? What’s our performance management system look like? But also, what’s our org structure look like? Do our spans of control actively prevent any well intended nurse supervisor from paying attention to the heart of another human? But those companies that do that well, genuinely, “I am interested in who you are and what you bring,” they will be, I think, in emotional sync with where many millions of us are.

ADI IGNATIUS: One area where I think it gets complicated is, as companies try to connect more with their employees and understand that they have options, part of it is the return-to-work question, and whether you allow more people to work from home, if you keep a hybrid thing going on. Which in some way seems to conflict with one of the ideas in your book, which is that we like to be together. We like to be in teams. It’s not that you cannot have teams remotely. Of course you can. But it’s different. So, is this a cautionary moment to you?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, no. Because I run this research institute funded by ADP, I can have an opportunity to go out and actually find data on that question. So we’ve just come out of the field with 27,000 people, 27 countries. And when you ask people whether or not they feel part of a team, unquestionably, if you feel part of a team, you’re more likely to be engaged, more likely to be resilient. But whether you work remotely or on site or hybrid, doesn’t seem to have any relationship to your feeling of being on a team. So it seems as though the feeling of team lives in the person, not the place.

The other part about it, Adi, which is really interesting and important is that when people say, “Right now, what do I want from work beyond salary and benefits?”, it’s interesting, in our data at least, that seems to suggest they don’t want necessarily flexibility of hybrid-ness or not, remote or not. They’re more interested in flexibility of hours. So it’s maybe not that I want to work from home. It may be that I, in this new world, I want the freedom, whether I’m working on-site on a construction site, whether I’m working in a restaurant, whether I’m working in an office, I want the freedom to be able to go back and deal with that life that you saw in my Zoom calls with my kid or my mom, who’s living with us. I need the freedom of time. Not necessarily the flexibility working from home or not.

If you’re a company and you want to meet people where they are, yes, they want to be part of a team, but team actually can function remotely or not. A team is a function of a team leader seeing you, and then collaborating. Doesn’t necessarily have to happen around the water cooler.

And then the real thing is: you’re trying to give people more trust. Love and trust are linked. And part of trust is flexibility of time. You give us flexibility of time to be able to accommodate the responsibilities that we have beyond the domain of our work, okay. Now I’m seeing you as a whole human, you’re not head count. You’re a human and I’ve seen you’ve got a dog and you’ve got a gerbil and then you got a kid and apparently you have to pick the kid up from somewhere. Okay. Now that’s an interesting thing for companies to start saying, “No, no, I totally see you as a whole human. You’ve got a whole set of responsibilities and I’m right with you on that. How can we figure that out with you so that you can actually feel like we care even a little about the fact that your life doesn’t begin and end when you walk through the office door?”

I think pre-pandemic, we sort of felt like we were invisible. Once we went through the office door, “Now I can see you.” And I think the pandemic really has changed all of that.

ADI IGNATIUS: But we will call you an FTE.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: We will call you an FTE. I know.

ADI IGNATIUS: So, okay. So you-

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Languages, ugh.

ADI IGNATIUS: Let’s think about the perspective of managers. Your book is asking managers to love their employees. It’s a term that will make some people feel squirmy, but in super practical terms, what does that mean? Basically, you’re trying to connect and get the best possible version of the employee you’re working with. But in practical terms what does that mean, to show love to your employee? What does that look like?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: We could talk all day about that. But the two things I would say here: 1) it is a mindset thing. Like what is love for? What is a relationship for? Outside of work, inside of work. If you’ve ever been in a really loving relationship, you know that the other person sees you and wants you to be the biggest version of that. They’re not trying to perfect you. They’re not trying to make you better. They’re trying to make you bigger. And you feel like the bigness of you isn’t them rewiring your brain to turn you into someone else. They’re not trying to correct you, fix you, give you critical feedback so that you can see your blind spots.

ADI IGNATIUS: That’s what spouses do.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yeah, exactly. Well, actually, in the best relationships, because there’s a lot of studies on highly successful relationships, that’s not what spouses do. That’s what spouses do in relationships with more conflicts, less resolution and more stress. The last thing you want to do in a spousal relationship is be in one where a person is like a detective telling you what the real reasons are for why you did what you did, because then you’re permanently kind of on edge. Because they’re probably right about some of it too.

So the first thing for a manager is: love in a relationship means I see you, I want you to be bigger. Sometimes it’s tough love. So sometimes they’re going to tell you what’s right for you versus what you want. So it’s expectant and demanding.

The second thing really practically for managers, and this is true for you if you have kids, is: 2) frequency. When it comes to love, frequency tramps intensity. You don’t say to your people, “Hey, look, if you got one really good day in a month, like one really good day, that should be fine. Remember that day a couple of months ago?” No. What the best managers seem to realize is I’m going to talk to you every week. I’ve called it a check-in in the book, but it’s 15 minutes of two questions. “Hey, Adi, what’d you love last week and what’d you hate? And then what are you focused on this week? How can I help?” 52 times a year, really simple.

Short-term past, short-term future. Short-term past, short-term future. When you look at the best leaders or team leaders, that’s what they’re doing. They’re going, “What’d you love last week?” Because love lives in the detail. Please don’t tell me you like executive presence or I really love strategy. It’s like, what does that mean? Last week, what’d you love? Because there’s a whole bunch of stuff you did last week, name anything. Anything. Well, you already know, Marcus. No, I don’t actually. Tell me that and then tell me what your priorities are next week so that together we can try to make sure that you maintain your intensity.

And to some extent, this is pragmatic on the manager’s part. They want to make sure that week number 36 is this kind of, [awesome], for you as week one, but it is like a weekly, gosh, if we could just wave a magic wand with your show here, we would just make every manager go, if you can’t check in with every one of your people one by one every week, then don’t be a manager.

ADI IGNATIUS: You want to look right at the camera and say that?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yeah. If you can’t check in… But in all seriousness, we’ve overly complicated what it means to lead. What it is to lead is, you check in with somebody every week for 52 weeks out of the year. And if you think to yourself, well, I’d love to do that, but I’m too busy leading, then you’ve missed the point. This is leading. And if this is boring, the stuff that’s the strategic part of leadership that you could do in a shed, in the bottom of the garden all by yourself, good, Adi, go do that. But the part which is getting to your ten editors and making them be like way better, I’m sorry, that’s a frequent light touch, you to them, them and their work, them and their work, 52 times a year, that’s leading.

And if you don’t like that, don’t lead people. Go sit in the shed at the bottom of the garden and we’re bringing a person who can lead the editors. But that’s what it is. Because humans feel seen by other humans. We’ve missed the power of frequency when it comes to seeing what a person loves and how they can turn it into contribution. And we’ve lurched into sort of these big generalizations of, I love strategy or I love challenge. When it comes to love and relationships, it’s not general. It’s very specific. I love the way that they hold their handbag or I love the way that they whistle when they’re calm. I love the way that they wear a suit. Love is very specific. Love lives in the details. But it’s weird when it comes to work, managers often resort to generalizations. He loves challenge. What sort of challenge? Doing what? So the check-in is a way to keep the detail of the person and their work front and center for the whole year.

ADI IGNATIUS: We have a lot of good questions coming in. I’m going to turn to a couple right now. This is from Johannes R. who is watching on YouTube. How do we choose between a job that we love but the pay is average, and a job that is okay but pays better and therefore enables a better lifestyle?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, Johannes, that’s the age-old question, isn’t it? It’s like, do you take a really high paying job? It’s like going to work in finance or something. I hate finance, but it’s going to pay me five times as much as the coin collecting role that I really want to do. And everyone’s different. You’ve got to make your own trade. But if your trade is, “There’s nothing I love about finance at all. This finance job, it pays me a ton but my day-to-day”–I call them in the book, I call them “red threads”. So any job isn’t just a job with a job description. It’s made up of thousands of different activities, moments, situations. It’s like a fabric. And some of the situations are black, gray, white, green, yellow. They lift you up a little. They lift you down a little, but some of these threads are red. And those threads are activities that lift you up. When you’re doing them, time flies by. When you’re in the middle of them, you feel mastery and they last 15 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes. If Johannes’s job has none of those and he’s looked, he’s done, he’s taken a blank sheet of paper around with him for a week. He’s drawn a line down the middle. He’s written, loved it and then loathed it. He took it around with him for a week or two weeks and on the loved it list, there’s nothing, then what I would say to you, Johannes, is that’s a bad trade.

“I’m just going to do it for five years. I have a loveless life at work for five years, but I’ll earn a lot of money and then I’ll quit and I’ll open the bed and breakfast in wherever.” By the time you quit, you’re damaged. By the time you quit, you’re a different person because you’ve had five years where for 40, 50 hours a week, you are not yourself. Love unexpressed isn’t neutral. It’s a caustic force. All forces should flow. If it doesn’t flow, it’s not neutral. It eats you up. If you’ve ever been in a relationship where there’s no opportunity for you to express that which you love, it feels deeply alienating and destructive.

If you’ve looked really hard for love in your work, even though it’s not the quintessence of what you want to do, but you’ve looked hard for those little red threads and you’ve found none and you keep finding none, then no matter how much money you’re getting, it’s not enough. Because it’s destroying you as a human and the people around you that you think you’re fooling, they know it. They might even know it before you do. So start by trying to find the red threads. And if you can find some and you’re well paid, well, okay, well, that’s now interesting because you got nourishment, psychological nourishment.

ADI IGNATIUS: Here’s another good question. This is from Susanna, from Angola. What if I love my job but I have a terrible boss?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: That’s a tricky one, isn’t it? Because when you think about love, love has to be received. Somebody has to see it in order for you to be able to feel comfortable expressing it. We know for sure that you develop in response to another human being, and often that human being at work is a boss. So the question for you is, if you deeply distrust your boss, all the data that we would have would suggest that if that’s a persistent condition, like you’ve tried to come to the boss and go, “Hey, listen, I don’t think you trust me,” or, “Hey listen, I don’t think you even see what I love to do and you seem singularly uninterested in it.” And you maybe have suggested some things that you might do together so that you can have a chance to contribute more. Because remember, the point of love is it’s a precursor to contribution. Love turns into performance. It’s a precursor to performance.

If you’ve had that conversation with your manager and your manager still is like, “I’m going to keep you down. I’m going to keep you down.” Then I’m afraid in the end because we develop best in response to another human being, if that human being is a person that you don’t trust and that wants to control and stifle you, you actually do have to leave your boss, which is why in the end, many people do up and leave their boss.

Or flipping that around, it’s why they often follow a really good boss from one company to another, because that person is so quintessential to my feeling of, “Are my loves even interesting to them and do they want to turn them into contribution in any way?” So yeah, in the end, the reality is bosses do matter.

ADI IGNATIUS: One more question from the audience. This is from Roxana from Solana Beach, California.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Hi, Solana Beach.

ADI IGNATIUS: Marcus, I know you have kids. Her question is, how can I help my kids find what they love in their future careers?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Oh, wow. Roxana, that is an amazingly good question. One of the promptings for the book actually was, I was talking to my daughter. Because obviously during the pandemic, many kids turned to their parents for help with various subjects. So my daughter was asking me about geometry and what’s the difference between a parallelogram and a rhombus? And I remember thinking, a) I have no idea, and b) wow, someone spent ten years on geometry with my kid. Someone took geometry, some curriculum designer somewhere 20 years ago took geometry so seriously, there’s ten years of lessons on it and language and routines and rituals and formulae. And it’s like, whoa, somebody took geometry incredibly seriously, which is great. I’m a big fan of numbers, but no one taught her about her. She’s got no language to describe that which she loves. She’s got no language to describe who should turn to her for what, where she loves to be asked to step into herself. Where is she at her best? Where is she like a deer in the headlights? All that, there’s nothing. There’s nothing at all.

For parents, first of all, just know the schools, sorry schools, but they’re not interested in loves of the kid. They’re interested in the kid achieving a certain grade point average, passing tests so they can go into the next level at college, et cetera.

It does fall on you actually. And the best way to think about finding what your kid loves is two things. One, believe that they’re there. If you’ve got more than one kid, you’ll know these kids are really different in that which they love and they have the same mom, same dad, really different patterns of loves and loathes. It’s weird, right? No one talks to you about that. But one of the biggest questions is, why am I different from my brother? And if I wanted to be more like him or less like him, could I be? How much can I rewire my brain to be like him? So the first thing is just know those loves are there.

And second, frankly, when it comes to parenting, love making is space making. So your challenge really, I don’t know your kids, Roxana, but how can you leave enough space for them to make choices? Because every time they make a choice you can see a love. Every time you make a rule you take away a choice. Now you need some rules, but every time you make a rule you take away a choice. Every time you take away a choice you take away an opportunity to see the loves of your child.

Can you become the most intelligent space maker, so you can see what the kid chooses? And then over time, of course, those patterns of choice, Adi, I’m sure you’ve seen this with your kids, the patterns of choice aren’t random. They change a wee bit, but they’re part of patterns.

And so if we can start to see the patterns of the kid’s choices as parents, wow, what a great way to help that kid have a language to talk about themselves when they need to pick a major, when they need to go through a job interview.

ADI IGNATIUS: Great answer. Let’s go back to the workplace. There are plenty of managers who manage lightly and then every year or a couple of times a year they’re called on to evaluate and give a number rating to the people on their team. I know from your books that you’re not a fan of that system, but I want to hear the Marcus critique of why that’s not a good approach and what might be a better approach.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: You mean the yearly or bi-annual performance appraisal?

ADI IGNATIUS: Yes. Performance review. Yes.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, that’s still everywhere. 80% of companies have some sort of yearly performance evaluation of some kind. And this is quite fresh for me because a friend came in the other day, and she’s a very effective person at her job. In fact, she was so effective that her company had done, and included with a few other folks, a time and motion study of how she was doing her job because she was so good at it. She was all chuffed and she was coming in for her yearly evaluation. And I think quite liked her manager too. But she was coming in and going, “I hope I get a 4% raise because if I’m good that’s what they give you, versus that 2% raise, it’s 4%.”

Now, regardless of whether or not there’s any motivational power in the difference between two and four, that’s what she was going in for. Well, she came out and I was like, “How was it for you?” And she goes, “Well, apparently I’m a three.” And I’m like, “What do you mean you’re a three?” She goes, “Exactly. That’s what I said. What do you mean I’m a three?”

They have a seven point scale where it’s inverted. So one is really good and seven is bad. And her boss said, “Well, we don’t really give sevens and sixes because if you’re sevens and sixes you’re fired. And no one really gets a one. So you’re upper echelon, in the middle part.” And she’s like, “What are you talking about? I was in the time and motion study as a study group. I was one of the excellent ones.” And they went, “Yes, well you’re probably actually a two, but we’ve actually run out of twos. And so you could think of yourself as a two, but we just didn’t have any left.” And she said, “What do you mean?” “Well, we forced the curve because otherwise every manager’s going to give everyone a two or a one, aren’t they? So we can’t have that. So therefore you’re a three.”

And she got the 2% raise, not the 4% raise. So there was that part of it that was damaging. But also on a human level, Adi, it was like, “I’m not a three. I’m actually not even a two.” And we know from data that even the ones, following a performance appraisal, their performance goes down more than 30%, even when they’re a one, because they walk away going, “I’m not a number.”

And the problem with all this is that we’ve kluged together performance measurement with performance development. Performance measurement, if you want to do it once a year so that you can hand out variable comp, okay. I don’t think you need a rating number to decide who gets the 2% versus the 4%. You could just go straight to the 2% and the 4%. But if you want to do that once a year because that’s the cadence of the way that you do your finances, all right.

Performance development, though, as we were talking about with the check-in, if you looked at “The Last Dance” with Phil Jackson and the Bulls, six championship rings, not because Phil Jackson was like, “Well, they don’t need any help from me. They’re just, they’re the best ever. Off you go. You don’t need me to check up on you.” But instead he’s like, “No, no, no. You’re Michael Jordan and you need me to check in with you after every game, pretty much every game. How did that work? Should we tweak that? Should we alter that?”

If you really look to performance development done well, it’s frequent, in the moment, the person and the work, the tweaks and the adjustments and the course corrects. Not long, this isn’t a burden on managers. It’s just like, no, no. Pay attention to what the person is doing in the work all the time and tweak and adjust because that’s performance development.”

Well, the problem with these once-a-year performance reviews, you shove both of those together. Not only does my friend go in and come out going, “Apparently, I’m a three.” But also she has to then store up all the stuff that she might want to talk about in terms of her career or in terms of her progress for the next year. And it gets so anxiety-inducing for managers and employees, because they both know it’s like a pressure cooker, it’s been building and building and building and building.

And then those poor managers too, have to sit down and go, “I’ve got to answer every single bloody question that she’s got because she knows, and I know that she knows that I know that she knows that I know, and we’re not going to talk about it again for a year.”

Our timing is all off. Our humanity is off. And then the point of these different functions is off. Solve for performance measurement and solve for performance development, and you’ll end up with two really different looking systems. Shove them together and you end up doing both of them really, really badly.

ADI IGNATIUS: That’s a great critique. Marcus, thank you for being a guest this week on “The New World of Work.”

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: I loved it.

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