ep. 10 - Jason Lauritsen: Employee Engagement and Workplace Culture Expert


Jason Lauritsen is a talent strategist and innovator who will challenge you to think differently about talent and the workplace. A former corporate Human Resources executive, Jason is today the Director of Client Success for Quantum Workplace where he leads a team dedicated to helping organizations make work better for employees everyday.

He also leads the research team behind Quantum’s Best Places to Work program that collects survey responses from employees at over 6,000 companies each year to identify, celebrate and promote some of the best workplaces in the world. He is the co-author of the book, Social Gravity and some people may know him as the tall, dancing guy with Talent Anarchy.



Gail: [00:01:30]

Jason Lauritsen is an employee engagement and workplace culture expert who will challenge you to think differently. A former corporate human resource executive, Jason has dedicated his career to helping leaders build organizations that are good for both people and profits. Most recently he led the research team for Quantum Workplace's Best Places to Work program where he has studied the employee experience at thousands of companies to understand the best workplaces in the world and what they do differently than the rest. Jason is coauthor of the book, Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships, and some people may know him as the tall dancing guy with Talent Anarchy.

Kyle: Hey, Jason. How are you?

Jason: I'm doing great. Thanks for having me.

Gail: Welcome, Jason. It's going to be fun. Come on. Maybe we just need to start with, what does it mean, the tall dancing guy with Talent Anarchy?

Kyle: How tall are you?

Jason: Well, only 6'5" so I don't know if that's notably tall. It depends on-

Gail: That's tall. That's tall.

Jason: [00:03:00]

Who I'm talking to, but yeah, the dancing guy part of that actually comes from part of one of the signatures that Joe and I ... Joe Gerstandt and I speak together at Talent Anarchy. We're a speaking team, so we do that also in addition to the individual speaking. One of the keynotes that we do, we open by I go out and I teach the audience how to ... I teach them basically a handful of dance moves and we do a flash mob in the first five minutes of the keynote, so that's how I gained that reputation.

Kyle: That's awesome. We all like flash mobs. Who doesn't like flash mobs?

Gail: Who doesn't like a flash mob?

Jason: Especially an unexpected flash mob when you're at a conference.

Kyle: When you're at a conference, you're tired, the coffee hasn't kicked in yet. It's flash mob time.

Jason: You start out angry and then you end up very happy.

Gail: Awesome. Why don't we back up just a little bit and why don't you just share with the listeners your story? What has led you to this point? Especially coauthoring a book. People always like to be grounded a little bit in what your background is so I think that's a good place to start.

Jason: [00:04:00]

Sure. There's always so many entry points that you can start your story, but I would say I'm a Midwestern kid, that I grew up on a farm in Iowa, and I would say from very early on there was a couple of things that looking back were always true. One is I had a pretty deep drive around trying to have impact in the world around me, whether it be early on getting involved in community activities through my church or through school or whatever, but I was always trying to pick a fight to make things better, to make whatever it was better. I think the other thing was that I always loved the art of performance and loved being in front of people, especially when it was drama or speaking, and that was early on set me on a path but it took me 20 years to figure out that I should be doing that for a living.

I studied, started my early career in sales. Sales led me to recruiting. Recruiting led me into corporate HR. Along the way I was involved in and started a couple of not for profit organizations, involved in community activism throughout, and that actually played a really key role in where the book came from. My coauthor Joe and I have been friends and colleagues now for 17 or 18 years and we created a couple of these nonprofits together when we were in our early young professional years. We were always out sort of crusading in the community, and that led to us getting to know a lot of people and building some pretty big networks, and eventually people started asking us how we had done that, how we ended up knowing everybody in our community. Ultimately, it was that question that catalyzed us digging in and doing the work that led to writing Social Gravity, because as we dug into it, it's like, yeah, there's some key things that happened and that we did that anybody could do and we wanted to share that with everybody.

Kyle: Now you've opened up. What is something that somebody can do to help grow and build their social network so that they have some form of social gravity?

Jason: [00:06:30]

I think probably the biggest and easiest one that people have available to them that I think they probably don't take advantage of is getting involved in some kind of meaningful activity. Whether that be raising your hand and getting involved in a committee or some kind of cause at work, at the office. Maybe you're volunteering for some sort of wellness committee and getting involved there, or you're leading the recycling efforts, or whatever that is, or going out in your community and getting involved in volunteerism activities.

There's research that supports that that's tremendously powerful, but from my own experience I could tell you that I wasn't really trying to build a network early in my career. I just was out trying to make stuff happen, and I kept coming together with people that cared about the same things that were trying to make things happen, and I built a lot of amazing relationships through that. Those relationships are intact 20 years later because they were built on such fertile soil as where they took root, and that's available to anybody. The beauty of it is you don't have to be an extrovert to do that. You can be an introvert. You just go raise your hand, get involved, and you build relationships as a byproduct.

Kyle: That's awesome. I look at a lot of my networks that I have, and I know that most of them took root and took place in that environment, some form of cohesive group where we're trying to accomplish some means to an end. Whether it's my relationships on the football team or if it was my study buddies in college.

Jason: Absolutely.

Kyle: I do have a quick question for you though.

Jason: Okay.

Kyle: You're from Iowa.

Jason: I am.

Kyle: What town in Iowa?

Jason: Estherville.

Kyle: I have no clue where that is, but I did go to college in Iowa for a hot second in Mount Vernon, Iowa at Cornell College.

Jason: Oh, no kidding? I know where that is. You were there for a moment.

Kyle: I was there for a moment in time, yes.

Gail: It was funny. He went there to play college football, and growing up in Texas playing for a 4A or a 5A team-

Kyle: 5A, yeah.

Gail: And having all the crowds, and it's the big thing on Friday night and he gets there and he's like, "Mom, no one goes to the games, it's freezing cold, and we lose all the time, and I have tonsillitis," and the next thing I knew, boomerang.

Jason: He was back.

Kyle: Yeah, I was back and-

Gail: It worked out for the best.

Kyle: It worked out for the best.

Gail: The college football wasn't quite like high school. That's for sure.

Kyle: The tonsillitis wasn't fun either.

Jason: No, that sounds like a perfect storm.

Kyle: The involuntary weight loss of 50 pounds just isn't conducive to wanting to gain it all back to be able to play football for a losing team.

Jason: No, it doesn't sound like it.

Kyle: [00:09:30] Hey, but shout out to One Course At A Time. My follow up question though, getting on Iowa and talking more about my background which is technology and tech and the big Silicon Valley companies where culture, culture, culture is the most important thing and making sure that people are engaged and really doing their work. Knowing that that is something that is at the core of what you talk about, I'm just wondering what your fundamental ideas and principles are behind that, so our audience can have an understanding of what it is that you talk about and why those things are so important.

Jason: [00:10:30]

It's interesting. One of the ironic things about the last several years is that I spent this time working for an HR technology company that does employee surveys, and then working with the Best Places to Work team. We were using this technology and this survey to uncover all of these ... Or to gather research and then I had this chance to look at what the research told us about what was driving culture and what mattered the most to employees and those kinds of things, and I think the ironic part of it is that at the end of this it's a technology product. I think we always are a technology application to collect this data, and I think we all want it to be. Especially in Silicon Valley, we all have technology companies and we believe technology can solve everything, but at the end of the day, the things that really matter the most and at the core of my message tends to be, I talk about two different components of this.

One is that part of what has made this culture work so hard and I think where people struggle is that management and leadership is still trapped in an old model where we view employment as a contract. We treat employees as if they are contractually obligated, and to some extent that's true. Technically it is a contract. I pay you, you do stuff. That's a contract. The problem is that for employees, and this is the part that was so interesting for me is that when you look at the research and you really break it down, you realize that for the employee, work operates like a relationship.

We expect the same things from work that we do from a relationship. we want to be valued and we want to be recognized for our contribution. We want someone that cares about us. We want trust. All these things that we look for in a relationship are the things that employees show up to work expecting everyday, and you could imagine why it breaks down when you show up and the person you're expecting it from treats you like it's a contractual relationship. That does not make for a really healthy relationship when you have such differing expectations, so understanding that and understanding how to design the work experience in the context of a relationship, and understanding how relationships work and bringing that to bear for how we treat employees and design experience is one of the bodies of content that I talk about.

The other is a lot of people ask if you spend time studying the best places to work a lot of leaders say, "Well what is it that the best places to work do?" Because part of it is, some people want to build great places to work. Some of them want to win contests. They want to win the Best Places to Work contest. My answer to that is always, there's not an easy answer but it distills down to three things.

When I talk about the best places to work and what they do differently, the three things I focus on are that best places to work create clarity for their employees. They're relentless in communication and we break down what that means, but they create clarity. They foster connection. They understand that part of the reason that employees love working there is because they really love the people that they work with and they're connected with those people and their leaders, and they create an environment where people are together, not working, because that fosters those friendships and relationships. Then the third element that I talk about is love, and we don't talk about that in the work context very often but when you look at the research you see it, that people want just what I mentioned earlier.

We want to feel valued and we want to be trusted and we want to feel recognized and we want to know that somebody cares about us and prioritizes our development. All of those same things are true in our personal relationships. We call it love when we're not at work. At work, we get twitchy about using that word. We don't like to say it, but that's really what it is. Those are the things I talk about. I show where that emerges from the research, and then we break it down and we help people understand how to do it.

Gail: [00:14:30]

I was looking over your keynote topics and you have one that's provocative because it's the exact opposite of what you just described, and that's power and politics in an organization, understanding the game. Speak to that a little bit. How does one get rid of that?

Jason: Well, it's not so much getting rid of it. I think what it is is understanding ... That was borne from me out of ... I mentioned my earlier career was in sales, and sales is all about understanding influence and navigating. In sales especially, I sold copiers which is I think one of the hardest sales jobs there is early on, and you learn that you have to be able to navigate your way to the person that could make a decision, and then you have to understand what motivates them and all these different things.

What I didn't realize when I was studying sales that I was essentially being given the kit that I needed to survive politics when I got into the organization. I came in working in HR, and by nature of being surrounded by so many HR folks early in my career, HR is a really interesting place to work because so many in HR are there because it was either, "Well, I'm either going to go HR or I'm going to do social work." They love people and they care, but then they get into the organization and they lose track of this isn't social work, and if you really want to make some change and get things done you have to understand how things work. You have to understand how to get things done.

In my early corporate career I was really good at making things happen. Well, I shouldn't say that. I step back. Actually my very first entry points, I failed miserably. I made some major political missteps very early in my first corporate gig. Then because I failed so badly I became a student of politics so that I wouldn't make that mistake again, and that's when I realized that my sales skills had equipped me with what I needed. What we do in that session is we really unpack that both politics and power, neither of those things are negative things. We've added that baggage. We add that on.

Gail: Just as I did.

Jason: They're just dynamics that exist that if you really want to be a change maker, if you want to make things happen, you want to get things done, you have to understand these dynamics and then you have to work within those dynamics to make positive things happen. I unpack that and then teach some skills about how do you do that.

Kyle: You're telling me my ideal of being a benevolent dictator and always asking for something to be done yesterday doesn't work?

Jason: It works. It just doesn't build loyalty and long term engagement. It'll work in the short run.

Kyle: Thank you for clarifying. I feel with my cognitive dissonance that the short term game is important.

Jason: Indeed. Low patience, that leads us down a lot of paths that aren't best.

Kyle: [00:18:00]

This is true. Low patience is not good. One of the things that you mentioned was connection, and connection outside of work, and again from back from my days working in Silicon Valley. What we used to have a lot of was connections, but in the office, because lord knows when you're working at one tech company you can't talk to the other people because some of them might steal your intellectual property, which is why all these tech companies have the beer fridge and the ping pong tables and the luges and what not, but what are some things that you think companies who maybe don't have access to such a wide array of pre IPO VC funding, what are some things that companies can do to make that connection outside the office so that that way work isn't work? It's more time with your family, just your family from a different mother or brothers, something like that.

Jason: [00:18:30]

What you find is that a lot of these companies ... The thing that these best places to work that are doing this well do is that they make space for relationships to form. That could be something as simple as even in meetings they take some time for people to update on what's going on in their lives or getting to know each other a little bit, or it's the old school potluck lunches.

To go back to what I mentioned earlier about meaningful activity, I think one of the most powerful ways, and it's inexpensive other than time, if you're willing to invest the time is, take your staff, and you see this frequently especially with the smaller companies that we look at is they'll take staff, and they'll go volunteer at the food bank for a few hours, or they'll go paint a house together in the community, or go on a Habitat for Humanity build, or whatever. But they're out doing something that matters, something that has impact, and they're doing some work together but they're also hanging out and that conversation happens. They build a relationship.

A lot of it doesn't have to be fancy or high dollar. It just needs to be, we have to make space and we have to also ... As leaders one of the things that gets in the way is that we've gotten trapped in this mindset that's still a holdover from the industrial era and our quest for efficiency where we have a lot of leaders that are conditioned to think, "Man, when I see that person standing at the water cooler, that's inefficiency. When there's two people at the coffee machine chatting, that's inefficiency, or they need more work to do."

Kyle: Time to lean, time to clean. Right?

Jason: [00:20:30]

Yeah, right. That's exactly right, and we have to learn to ... If we get smarter and better about actually managing performance in a smart way, then you can allow more space for those relationships, because that coffee conversation may be the most productive thing that's happening at that moment or it could be for those people.

Gail: [00:21:00]

One of the things that I've seen, I had a 20 year corporate career and then I've had my company for 18 years. When I was back in that corporate career we used to work crazy hours, and we did have lots of relationships. What I've noticed with maybe the millennials or some of my younger employees is they're striving so hard for work/life balance and they're trying so hard to have boundaries in place, that sometimes I see them as the ones who have a heads down mentality of, "I'm going to show up, I'm going to do my job, I'm going to leave because I crave work/life balance."

My observation is they have sometimes have not allowed the time for the relationships, and I heard something I think it was yesterday. I read it somewhere so this is not an original thought, but it was there is no such thing as work/life balance. It's work/life integration and I don't know. My own observation is just seeing that maybe in an effort to have work/life balance they're skipping the spot of developing relationships, which is the beauty of work. I'm still such good friends with the first two people that I worked with at EDS. We have a bond that has sustained so many years because we truly had a relationship when we worked together.

Jason: [00:22:30]

I hear that from a number of people when you talk about this topic, and I think it's a real thing. One the one hand, one of the things I love most about the millennials, I have mixed feelings about all the generational stuff. I think where I come down, I look at the millennials and I love the fact that I don't know that their desires are all that different than any of the other generations. They just have the audacity to expect it, which is fantastic.

I love that because it's changing the game for all of us, but on the other hand I do think that there's an element of what that does is it puts more pressure on - I think as leaders and as those of us that think about designing work experience in the workplace, I think it really ... To me, when you have work/life integration, or some people will say work/life synergy, or whatever buzzword you want to use for it, the whole point is that it's an artificial separation. The idea is if it's working well, you don't need a separation. It works.

You find it works, and for some people, working 55 hours a week is their sweet spot, and for some people it's 35 hours, and everybody's got to figure that out but I do think that especially with our younger employees, they've been told that in order to get this balance that's how you do it. "I got to work really hard in this period of time that I have while I'm at the office so that I can have this time outside." I think we have to design the space in where the relationship building, they learn it and experience it and learn to value it, because it's designed into how we work. And I think that's still a breakdown for most places. Even when you value it, I think a lot of times we still aren't really figuring out how to build that in and make it part of how we work, and so I think the more we do that the more likely it is that this will become less of an issue over time.

Kyle: [00:25:00]

I remember when I was working in San Francisco for a very large startup, we were pre IPO. We had millions and millions and millions of dollars of funding. We had the ability to do whatever, recruit whomever. You name it, whatever snack, I had it. I had the Google nap pod which is kind of a cool thing, and a lot of other cool stuff, but that "integration" if you will of having our Friday Clean Streets program baked into the calendar of cleaning up the streets of San Francisco where it's community volunteering work, but it's just part of it and you're going and you're hanging out with your coworkers. Or the monthly sales meeting that's outside the office where we're painting storefronts or some other kind of community activity. It was just baked in there, and they did a really good job of doing that and I think to your point, a lot smaller companies, they just don't have the manpower maybe.

That's just where I'm going with this is that they maybe don't have the manpower yet to think about those creative ideas, but if you get the ball rolling and saying, "Hey, we can have this team meeting on a Friday, but we can do it maybe at 3pm in the afternoon at a soup kitchen and we can talk while we do this or while we prepare meals or something." It is something you could do.

Jason: You know what's interesting is that at least in the work that I've done in looking at this, what I've found to be true is exactly the opposite where the small companies are actually more likely to be doing this kind of thing. They're more likely to make time to hang out. The company I worked for was an HR tech company but it was still fairly small, and our CEO still twice a year had everybody in the company over with their spouses and families to his house, just because. A Fourth of July-ish celebration, and then a holiday party. We would do that kind of stuff. We would frequently do social things. When the Star Wars movie came out two years ago, we bought tickets and went to the first viewing of it at 10am or whatever that Friday morning. Those kinds of things.

We find that you see that in smaller companies, and I think it's because what I tend to find is that as companies get bigger, and I think San Francisco lives in its own bubble because of the fierceness of the competition for talent there has really made the dynamics different, so the larger companies tend to be smarter. The larger companies also tend to be more likely run by a millennial or a Gen X-er, and I think that has had a profound difference in some of those cultural things like that, but I think in most of the rest of the country when companies get bigger they stop doing that. They start convincing themselves it's too expensive to do at scale, but it is important.

Kyle: I think I probably would agree with you actually. I'll name the company. It was Square and it was run by Jack Dorsey, the guy who founded Twitter and all that stuff, but we had several groups internally. We had our own bourbon tasting team.

Jason: Nice.

Kyle: [00:28:00]

We had a Frisbee golf team. We had this, that, the other, and they're all special, secret groups on the G Suite profile and we were all ready to go, and it was really baked in there but the team and the talent. We had 28 year olds who were running product and we were crushing life, so it was a lot of fun.

Gail: Jason, when you speak ... Sometimes it strikes me when I listen to a speaker. I feel like, "Oh, he's dissing on the leader." Or I feel like, "Oh, he's talking to the leader. What are the employees going to do?" So how do you manage that balance? Because I'm sure many of your principles you just wish, "I wish I could get my leaders in and tell them how to do this," and then there's other things that you want to share with the actual employees, so how do you navigate that when you're speaking?

Jason: [00:29:00]

One of my goals in my speaking and in everything I do related to content, whether I'm writing or whatever, is to challenge people to think differently. I'm by nature a perpetual malcontent, and so I'm never going to be the speaker that's the sunshine and rainbows, everything is great. I show up to talk about the things that we know or feel aren't working but we're not really talking about or we're not sure why or where to go, and I try to challenge people to take a look at it and to think about it differently, and to challenge them to recognize or reflect on noticing their own role in it.

I think if you do that right, you can do that both whether you're ... If you're in a room that's got both the employees and the leaders in it, I think you can do that where you try to lead them to a mutual recognition of, "Hey, that is important. I'd like more of that," and the leaders saying, "Yeah, that makes sense to me. I get it. Maybe I could do more of that." You try to help them get there. I do think there is a very fine line, and I think you mature on this. I would say early in my speaking career I was a lot more ... I'd say I was a lot more relentless probably on calling people out about that. You come to learn, if your audience feels like they just got beaten up in the end, that is not a winning recipe.

You can do that when somebody's paid you to come in as a leadership consultant, because they need change. They want you to beat them up. But when you're at a conference and you're doing a keynote, that's a totally different thing. I've got to leave you feeling good and energized and feeling capable of change. That's where I live is in the world of trying to challenge your ideas or your perspective on things, and less about challenging you or your intentions or whatever.

Gail: Excellent. Well, I know over the past three or four years the request for speakers on employee engagement has really ... It's been a common thread, so I definitely think you fall into that. What do you think? Do you consider employee engagement another buzzword, or do you think it's something that's here to stay?

Jason: [00:31:30]

I think the concepts that exist, or the problem I guess that has caused us to all be in a frenzy about engagement is real and isn't going anywhere. I think that will continue to amplify. I think employee engagement itself as a construct or as an idea ... The thing that people forget ... I label myself an employee engagement expert, partly because that's how people understand it, but I think sometimes I remind people that employee engagement is not a thing. It's made up. Some academics needed a name for a set of soft measures in the organization that they could use to help characterize, if we measured this thing that we can feel about employees that's going to drive the impact, performance, and retention, and all this other stuff we want, we have to give it a name. So they created employee engagement, and then I think Gallup is the one that made it famous. I don't know that employee engagement ... I think it is buzzwordy and whether that phrase will be lasting, I don't know, but I think the tenant that underlie it.

If employees feel a strong sense of connectedness, both emotionally and mentally, with their work, with their workplace, with the people that they show up and do it with everyday, I think it's hard to argue that that doesn't produce better results. There's data that proves it. Anecdotally if you just think about your own experience, it makes sense, but yet we're colossally bad across the board at doing it consistently. I think there's a whole body of work still to be done and there's a lot of opportunity, so I don't see employee engagement or the work that's underneath it going away. The labels may change. You're hearing people talk about employee experience now a lot more, and those kinds of things. What we call it may change, but I think we'll still be talking about the same things for years to come.

Gail: Excellent. Thank you.


I think that's a good place for us to wrap up. If you're interested in booking Jason feel free to reach out to GDA Speakers by going to GDASpeakers.com or calling 214-420-1999. If you want to read the transcript from this podcast go to GDAPodcast.com, and also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, all that other fun stuff. Other than that, thanks Jason.

Jason: Thank you. Thanks for having me. I enjoyed it.

Gail: Thank you.

Kyle: Thank you.