Be More Podcast: 45 Years Of Employee Engagement with David Zinger

In this episode, we’re joined by David Zinger, engagement speaker, educator, consultant, and coach at David Zinger Associates.

Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week, we’re joined by David Zinger, Engagement Speaker, Educator, Consultant, and Coach at David Zinger Associates.

The term “employee engagement” originated in the 1990s. Despite its widespread use, employees are still struggling with stress, burnout, and a lack of engagement. David shares his thoughts on how we can change that.

David Zinger taught educational and counseling psychology at the University of Manitoba for over 20 years. He has since consulted with hundreds of organizations on employee engagement and written four books on the topic, including "Zengage: How to Get More Into Your Work to Get More Out of Your Work."

"Engagement is the diamond in the heart of work wellbeing."

David Zinger

Key Takeaways:

  • The term employee engagement originates from the 1990s. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, it has become one of the main focuses for people leaders across the globe—especially in a world of hyperconnectivity and constant distraction.

  • The result of engagement: Good Work, done well, with others, every day. David shares that if people are engaged, they will achieve what he believes to be the ultimate goal.

  • David uses what he calls the “Engagement Zone,” where he breaks down his day into 11-minute parts. The Engagement Zone is a mindful exercise that contributes to his personal wellbeing and self-consciousness. It keeps him more focused and engaged with his work.

  • David shares steps for employees to increase their own engagement:
    • Move into the pilot seat, gain autonomy, and try to gain more control of your working life.
    • Cultivate the mindset that you work with an organization, not for it. And that you as an employee, are not a victim of the organization.
    • Aim to engage more with the present moment to gain more satisfaction from what you are doing. Don’t let work push you to the point where you can’t actually get to do the work!


Patrick: When I was getting my pilot’s license, my flight instructor told me that there would be few pilots in the world that would be able to achieve 20,000 hours of pilot in command time.

The idea of doing anything for 20,000 hours seemed daunting to me, and I remember thinking, “Wow, you really need to love what you’re doing to do it for that amount of time.” Well, my guest today clearly loves the world of employee engagement as he has been a practitioner in the engagement space for over 45 years. That’s more than 24,000 hours of experience.

David Zinger has accomplished and experienced so much from teaching educational and counseling psychology at the University of Manitoba for over 20 years to working with hundreds of organizations on their employee experience journey and even authoring four books including Zengage, How to Get More Into Your Work to Get More Out of Your Work. David and I are going to discuss a few of his passion areas today, including thoughtful action and cultivating wellbeing. David, thank you for being a part of the conversation today.

David: Patrick, thank you for that introduction.

Patrick: That’s great, and a fellow pilot as well. You know about the challenge of being able to get that many hours as a pilot. Okay, let’s talk about your career. 45 years, that is an impressive amount of time to be working in employee engagement. I can only imagine the growth and change that you have experienced in the world of employee engagement over that time.

In a couple of minutes, how would you describe the evolution of employee engagement, high level over that time? What stands out to you as maybe the most impactful changes that have happened over the past 40-plus years?

David: Well, it can almost begin with the terminology. I was a career development coach and employee assistance counselor for Seagram, Diageo. It was all about engagement, we just didn’t have the vocabulary for it.

Then, as you well know, William Kahn came on the scene in 1990, a tennis instructor at a camp needed to do something for dissertation, became interested in work and used the term “personal engagement”, and used the term “embracing meaningfulness availability and psychological safety”, which we’re just catching up to now in the last three years or so. He kind of got the ball started, Gallup in some ways, in the 1996 or so, developed their Q12, very popular survey and then the space just started to grow tremendously.

In the early days, believe it or not, Patrick, I wrote so much about engagement, that if you went into Google, I was seven or eight of the top 10 hits if you put employee engagement in Google. I’m way down the pages, now, because I don’t buy advertising or don’t do that.

Engagement is going through all kinds of changes. We have to look at it from an employee perspective, sometimes they see it as the organization just trying to, pardon the expression, suck more work out of me, and haven’t been really showing the full benefit of engagement for themselves. To be sustainable, engagement must be for the benefit of all, the organization, the leader, the employee, the customer, the client along the way. Lots of complexity, lots of paths with engagement.

My own personal definition is eight words, “good work done well with others every day.” I find that when I talk to employees, they understand that. When I talk to leaders, they understand that. I’m not a huge fan of great work. I like it when it occurs, but I just don’t think it’s attainable, but I can do good work every day. Occasionally, it does become something that I would quantify as great, but that’s rare.

I’m really pleased with good work and I’m pleased with the element of the word good. It talks about a quality, and also an element of goodness, and all the implications of that along the way. Now with the pandemic, things are changing in all kinds of directions. We learned, my gosh, if you give employees autonomy, they can do a fair bit of productivity, but there are also lots of challenges.

I think the big challenge we’re facing now is for employees to learn how to engage themselves in their work when they’re working from home and have two children and loads of laundry to do and all kinds of other factors along the way. Well, in other environments such as health care, you’re working 16-hour days in a very vulnerable position with all kinds of things going on and it’s really a challenge.

I guess the last thing I’d say is I really appreciate the academic look at engagement and the term work engagement, the vigor, absorption, dedication we have to our work and how that dovetails with burnout, because we’re seeing a lot of focus on burnout. Yes, I like to say engagement is the diamond in the heart of work and wellbeing.

Patrick: There’s a lot in there, David. We’re going to talk about it, a lot of very meaningful points that you’ve made. First off, we have a shared passion for the work of William Kahn, just amazing concepts and the concept around psychological safety has never been more important to your point as it is today. I do think that aspect of employee engagement is definitely starting to catch up, and we’ll talk a bit about that.

First, let’s start with this good work. I really like this concept of people being satisfied with the concept of good, and the idea of good work. That’s a great thing to attain and that’s a great thing to be able to accomplish. Finding accomplishment every day, on an individual level, has never been more of a challenge, I think, than it is today.

How do you approach finding this individual sense of accomplishment, each day, feeling that you’ve done good work and celebrating that somehow with yourself? Because that is something we all really need to do right now being detached, as you said, being in different work environments, and really needing to sometimes encourage ourselves on a daily basis? How do you approach that, and what have you learned over the years to have that be successful with yourself?

David: Let me step back for a second, and great is the enemy of the good. For many employees, when we talk about being great, they hear it as hyperbole. They wonder about the authenticity of it. I think good is earthy, it’s prairie like, I’m from the Canadian prairies. It’s real, it feels genuine to me, and it also feels like it’s service and consideration and caring for others. It’s also sustainable. I can maybe do great work for a little bit of a period of time, but if you want me to do that day after day, hour after hour, 11-minute periods after 11- minute periods, it’s just not sustainable.

One of the things I’ve really done with my work is I work in what’s called the engagement zone. Mine’s really quirky, it’s 11 minutes and 11 seconds. It really came out of some of the academic work that said, “My gosh, engagement fluctuates daily and hourly and maybe by the minute.” I was just interested in how long I could sustain engagement for, and approximately 10 minutes worked for me.

Well, I now use that all the time. Each day I track what I call my ease zones, or engagement zones, and it’s 11 minutes and 11 seconds. After each period, there’s often a little pause. Sometimes they’ll do a stretch, sometimes they’ll do a breath, sometimes that might shift what I do, sometimes I stack and string them together. It’s not like, “Jeepers, the guy only works for 11 minutes.”

The 11 minutes and 11 seconds is very salient. I developed that on November 11th, which is Remembrance Day, also my mother’s birthday. In some ways it honors and dedicates and celebrates to all those who have come before me with that. Then, because I’ve worked from home off and on for 40 years, I realized it also applied to things around the house.

Work can make you well, the accomplishment and Peakon is really on with the sense of accomplishment and Teresa Amabile’s progress principle, I realized I could do that for tasks and chores. I do laundry, I may cook a meal, and I often do those in 11-minute intervals, and each interval gives me a sense of progress. We know that progress is the single biggest factor that engages knowledge workers, and if I have a setback, it’s very easy to resume because I only have to resume for 11 minutes and 11 seconds.

Patrick: That is a fascinating perspective. I think about how the world of work is today, and, really, we tend to be forced into boxes of working in 30-minute or hour-long sessions in today’s world because that’s how long meetings usually are for. It’s unfortunate that work has also transformed into how a meeting cadence or a meeting structure is. How do you manage your individual cadence of 11 minutes? How do you have that work, or what would a suggestion be for people to have that work in an organizational structure, where it may be different than their individual cadence?

David: That’s a really good question. I want to back up for a second. I think one of the reasons why my ease zones are so vital and important and could be so useful for so many now is we’re working less spatially and more temporarily. By that I mean, when you work from home, you may have a dedicated place to work from, but more of it is governed by time. When we have smartphones and all kinds of other things that can make work 24/7, sometimes we get called into doing something at 7:00 at night when we’re trying to put two children to bed. If you just do it for 11 minutes, and you can stop and then make a switch, it’s a little bit about transitions.

Ellen Langer, who’s done some fabulous work with mindfulness, said that whatever you engage with engages you. Whatever you engage with engages you. In some ways, each 11- minute 11-second interval of work is something that contributes to my wellbeing. It’s a mindfulness exercise, instead of a mantra, instead of a breath, it’s the actual task of work itself. That temporal element is really vital.

For instance, I’m not doing it on this call, I could have my watch have a little vibration and after every 11 minutes and 11 seconds, it just vibrates for a second and I just know we’ve done 11 minutes of our conversation. Just noting it, no big deal. It’s like some meditation practices. It keeps me more focused, more engaged, and gives feedback. One final thing, Teresa Amabile, I was just reading some of her work again today. She was talking about, “We need the sense of progress to be given, not just by our leaders or managers or coworkers, we need the work itself to give us that sense of progress.” That’s a way to design work with progress in mind.

Patrick: Along those lines, you mentioned the knowledge worker and this idea of spatial versus temporal work. Let’s dig into that a little bit more. How do you see that shift happening, and how do you see that impacting knowledge workers? There’s this quote around knowledge workers don’t have anything to point to like buildings. If you can talk a little bit more about that. Let’s dig into that a little bit.

David: Just on a very superficial level and on a tangible level, I track my 11-minute periods in a notebook. There are apps and things that I could do to do that, but I just write them down because it’s something I actually can point to, it’s something I can see. I total the number at the end of the day, but I don’t keep score or do any analysis. It’s just really noting that along the way. I think the worker of today needs to be a master of transitions and micro transitions. All transitions begin with an end, have a neutral zone, and then go to the beginning. It’s very important and vital for people working from home, or working in the office, or working in the emergency department, to be able to make powerful transitions in and out of work from moment to moment so that they are fully engaged, they’re mindful, they’re aware, they’re connected to what they’re doing.

Stephan Rechtschaffen, many years ago in a book called Time Shifting, once said, “There is no stress in the present moment.” I disagree with Stephan. There is some stress in the present moment, but so much of it is tied to the past or to the future, that for us to be able to dwell in the present moment, and that’s why 11 minutes and 11 seconds works for me, I know I can just sustain myself in that time, is a great stress reduction exercise.

It comes back to what you were saying before, Patrick, let’s break down the silos that we can find wellbeing inside work. We can find the antidote to burnout inside the work. We do not need to go outside of work to find our wellbeing. We can and we probably want that because it’s important. Many people talk about recovery. How important recovery is for work? After every 11 minutes and 11 seconds, I have a micro recovery. I have a chance to recover and to replenish myself. If we just go to the job demand resource model of work engagement, which is demands and resources, it, in some ways, transforms the demand of work into a resource.

Patrick: This idea of finding wellbeing in work is something that very much resonates with me. I believe that this sense of accomplishment, or the ability to find a feeling of accomplishment, is so important for all of us as human beings. When we feel a sense of accomplishment, whether it be small or large, that creates momentum for us that allows us to celebrate ourselves a little bit. I know that you also have passion around people being able to create accomplishment for themselves. Also, around the difference between creating self-accomplishment or recognizing accomplishment, as opposed to always being reliant on your organization or your business to be the one that is showing accomplishment, or helping you find accomplishment. How could you help people to be able to find a bit more accomplishment on their own, as opposed to being dependent on their businesses or organizations to drive that sense of accomplishment?

David: Two things. Let’s move back to the pilot story that you began with is to move into that pilot today. I know in your survey how important autonomy is, and so recognizing that engagement isn’t something done to us. It’s something we do for ourselves in conjunction. We don’t really work for an organization, if you really want to look at it carefully, we work with an organization. We’re not a victim of the organization and they’re not a villain and we’re not a villain and they’re not a victim. We can take some of that on. Once again, I guess there’s a strong connection, in my mind, between engagement, mindfulness, being in the moment, connection.

One of the best examples I saw from that was in the Winnipeg Art Gallery many, many years ago. We had a group of Tibetan sand painters come, and for a whole week, they made a beautiful Mandela, one grain of sand at a time so coven. You could come and watch them work. Then on Friday, at the very end, when they completed this beautiful piece of work, one grain of sand at a time, what they did was they just sweep it all together, put it in a little bag, walked down to the Assiniboine River, which is close to our art gallery, and they dumped the sand in the river. So many people do work, and then, because of reasons, the organization moves in a new direction. COVID hits, something else goes along the way. It can all be taken away. Our health can be taken away.

If you don’t engage in the moment, if you don’t get a sense of satisfaction from what you’re doing, one grain of sand at a time, or one report at a time, or one project at a time, you’re missing so much of what’s going on. It doesn’t mean you can’t look down the line. It doesn’t mean you can’t have goals and objectives. It doesn’t mean that you don’t work together, but don’t let work get to you to the point that you can’t even get to your work.

Patrick: There’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying about accomplishment is very much an individual process for a lot of people, and being able to connect with that, especially now, has never been more important. We talk about autonomy, and there’s this concept of autonomy and how impactful autonomy is to employees. There’s another aspect of this, which is trust and people building trust with themselves, with their organizations, with their managers, with their leaders, to be able to have an autonomous relationship. Can you share some stories, or personal experiences, where you’ve seen a really significant amount of success with building trust, either within interpersonal relationships or an organization that has done really well with building trust with their employees? Do you have any thoughts on that?

David: Yes, trust isn’t to give. People watch and see. People have built-in shockproof crap detectors and can read inauthenticity in approximately an 18th of a second, which is like, whoa. If you’re not genuine and you’re not real, don’t think you’re pulling anything over on anyone. You’re probably about as obvious as Mr. Donald, our President Donald Trump is in America. People see what’s going on in there. It ties in a little bit with psychological safety. I was involved in some courses around conversations and making conversations effective.

One of the things that I really took away was that to make a conversation safe, to make a relationship safe, the other person needs to know that you care about them and that you care about what they’re interested in. If you have that you’re well on the way to trust and safety. Now don’t mistake the word caring for soft namby-pamby everything is wonderful. I’ve been involved in my times of having people be fired, and out of the stance of caring, I needed to put their performance and their behavior in front of them.

I did that not to get to them, not because they got to me, and some of them did get to me and they created emotional upheaval and they were challenging, but I had to really do a gut check that this was based on caring. I cared about this person, but that doesn’t mean that I cared so much that, “Oh, well, fine. Whatever you want to do or however you want to do it along the way with that. Caring, particularly in 2020, and when we have to demonstrate virtual caring in other elements, is a real key to me in creating trust and creating psychological safety, and, really, in connection with our work.

Part of the reason I’ve sustained myself in my work is because I care about it. There’s an element that really goes out to it, and so those emotions are vital, which is paradoxical, because I really see engagement as a behavior to talk about people’s emotions. That’s interesting, but I really want to see behavior. If I feel good about the day, that’s one thing, but if I can point out that I did 30 engagement zones of work, that’s behavior, and I really like to look at what’s going on behaviorally.

Patrick: How would you suggest we find out or figure out our unique e-zone or engagement zone, because I really want to do this, and I’m curious how to go about figuring it out for myself? How do you suggest I do it, or our listeners figure out what their engagements are? Should I try to start with 11 minutes to see how it goes?

David: If you have a significant number, your lucky number, a significant, for some reason, your child’s birthday or something, it may dovetail on that. Let me just back up. Eric Ericsson, who worked with Deliberate Practice and experts, suggested that they practice in about 90-minute engagement zones. These are the best people in the world. They’re very able to sustain engagement for 90 minutes, and if you can sustain engagement for 90 minutes, wow, that’s excellent. I recommend that a person generally start with about five minutes, make it short.

Small is significant, particularly when it’s attached to the significant, and I’m not suggesting you only work for five minutes, Patrick, you may string or stack many of those together. If five minutes seems the time is going up before I’ve even begun, stretch it. It can be a fluent time, I’ve worked with it for a long time. I used to be 20 minutes, and then sometimes I went down to 10. Sometimes I went up to 30. I’ve latched onto 11. 11, it’s got all kinds of significance and history for me now, but you can always alter it.

If you find the next day that you’re not doing them, you might want to lower the time, or if you find them really easy to do, and they don’t seem to lack any omf, or meaning, or any significance, then you might want to stretch the time, but the question is, are you engaged? If your mind is wandering, and it always wanders a little bit, but if it’s getting off track, if you’re starting on something and then all of a sudden you’re texting or doing something else, that’s a sign that you’re off the e-zone. Now, you just bring yourself back, but if, overall, you keep losing it, then you might want to shorten it.

I meditate for 11 minutes and 11 seconds every day. I write for 11 minutes and 11 seconds every day. I read for 11 minutes and 11 seconds every day at the start of my day. I just know that I can sustain my full being within that work. I could lengthen that, but it’s just I know that small is really significant, and it has a big impact on our inner lives. I tend to keep with that timeframe. But start small and then decide what’s going on with it, and see it really as an invitation, not an imposition, not something you have to do, but just something you want to try. One of the things we’re seeing in the workplace in the last five or eight years is much more talk about experimentation. See it as an experiment and see how it works. If it’s not helpful, don’t stay with it, abandon it. Find what works for you.

Patrick: This e-zone concept, I think about the different drivers of engagement, and there are so many parallels with the overall core drivers of engagement that you can really connect with this concept of personal engagement zones from accomplishment through goal setting to autonomy as we’ve been talking about. I think there is a lot of potential in this, definitely something that I’m going to take on doing because I know I feel, and I’m sure many people that are listening feel, that days can be daunting, right now, with back-to-back meetings, and literally running from one virtual meeting to another.

The ability to feel a sense of getting something done, in this world of inundated diaries and calendars, is just going to get significantly more challenging for us. I think that we’re at the start of it, and we’re just starting to feel and experience what it is like for the majority of people to be detached. There are many organizations out there that do this really well and they have had distance teams since their inception of their business, and those organizations, now, are becoming beacons of light in a lot of ways that the ones that do it well in figuring out how to have this available and have this work really well for employees, but that’s going to be a significant transition phase for a lot of employees but also a lot of organizations, and the pace of change is incredibly fast right now.

Whatever we can do to create these abilities for ourselves to be connected with, things that really drive our engagement, allow us to be present in the moment, and to feel these moments of accomplishment throughout the day, I think is going to be quite significant for us. Thank you for sharing with us this concept of the engagement zone, the e-zone. Also, thank you for your passion around this concept of good. I think that that is an area that we all need to think about and recognize because sustaining good work is much more of a realistic world than constantly sustaining great work. I think that that is a very strong takeaway from this conversation.

David: lot of people are overwhelmed and there does seem to be so many demands. I’ve talked about 11 minutes and 11 seconds, but pay attention to the transition zones. If you’re going from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting, you may only have 30 seconds or 90 seconds. You can engage in a micro-practice that contributes to your wellbeing. You can read a paragraph from a book you like, you can take three conscious breaths. You can do one yoga pose, you can do something else not to fill the time. Don’t go so crazy that you don’t have empty time.

Maybe you just turn your screen to white and just look at it for a second and don’t think about anything, but there always is that availability for micro-practices, and I’m seeing a lot of people saying, “Oh, my God, I’m just so overwhelmed. I can’t do this, I can’t do that, or whatever.” You can find some ways to squeeze that in. If you’re working at home with two children, the micro-practice might be just connecting with your child, even for 90 seconds, knowing that you’re going off to the next meeting, but really being there for the 90 seconds, knowing that it’s not just the work engagement of the actual work, there is work in parenting and you engage with that child for 90 seconds. If they know that you’re there, it makes a difference. It makes a difference for both them and you. I think we need to explore more around micro-practices around work and wellbeing.

Patrick: David, we could talk for hours. We have a lot of shared passions. I very much appreciate your thoughtfulness and your articulation of these learnings that you’ve had over your career and the experiences that you’ve had. You’ve created the thought process for many people today that are listening to really think about the individual employee experience and employee engagement from a personal perspective. I think that that is incredibly powerful because so much that we talk about is around how organizations and how businesses create employee engagement, and how they– I’m saying, “Create employee engagement” but how it’s the responsibility of the organization to keep employees engaged.

In reality, creating environments and being able to create the ability for these behaviors to be demonstrated is very much the responsibility for an organization, but at the same time, it’s very much all of our individual responsibilities to show up, to demonstrate those behaviors, and to be able to celebrate within ourselves. Thank you very much for sharing your insights.

We’d love to have you on for another conversation at some point around how the next year unfolds. Because with the speed of how things are changing, I think we’re going to go through a continued evolution when it comes to employee engagement, which I think is amazing. I’m sure many more conversation points for us to have in the future. Just a heartfelt thank you for being on the show today and having the conversation.

David: You’re a great interviewer, Patrick. You’re really good at drawing the best out of people. I really feel that some things were drawn out of me that I didn’t even expect to say. Thank you so much.

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