Corporate Culture & Productivity

Heart & Workplace Performance

Moira vandenAkker
April 12th, 2017

Mark C. Crowley, Speaker, Change Agent For Culture & Engagement, Author

Employee engagement is incontestably one of the top issues facing organizations today. How do you build workplace cultures that not only attract and retain talent but also deliver great performance? Find out how the answer has been scientifically proven to come from the heart.

In this Workplace Unplugged interview, we chatted with Mark Crowley, workplace leadership author, speaker and consultant. His thought leadership has been published by Fast Company Magazine, USA Today, the Huffington Post, The Seattle Times and Gallup, and his two most recent LinkedIn Pulse articles have been read well over 1 million times. To start the conversation off, we asked Mark to tell us a bit about his background and what led him to specialize in workplace leadership and human performance.

MCC: That’s a big question! I had a rather difficult upbringing in the sense that my mother died when I was very young and my father was psychologically abusive and had a deep motivation to destroy my spirit and wellbeing.

I grew up being repeatedly told that I had no value as a person, and no potential for success in life. And after crippling me with this kind deep emotional and psychological abuse for my entire childhood, my father chose to kick me out of the house right after I turned eighteen. This really meant on my own. Even though I was weeks away from starting college and had expected him to pay for my tuition and livelihood, he instead gave me no financial support, no money for food, tuition or rent not to mention emotional or psychological support. I never went back home for a birthday or holiday from that point forward.


So, all of the sudden, I was truly struggling to survive and really didn’t know what hit me. As my father’s decision came as a complete shock, I was now confronted with some key existential questions like “Am I capable? Will I get through college? Can I endure all of this?”  As I saw it at the time, I needed to get through college simply to prove to myself that I wasn’t going to be the failure my father assured me I would be.  Consequently, fear of failure became a huge motivator at the time, and I was massively motivated to figure out how to be successful, how to do well in school and how to keep myself sustained.

As you can imagine, there was no grand epiphany; I had to struggle and make lots of mistakes — and I had many setbacks before I was able to grow into myself and figure things out. It took me over 5 years to graduate, but I did it.

In my last year of school, I became painfully aware of all the disadvantages I had in relation to my fellow students. I lacked self-confidence. I had nowhere to go on Thanksgiving nor did I have anyone who really cared about me. I had no one to encourage me, give me thoughtful direction or acknowledge any of my achievements. As I grew to understand how important these things were, I started to fantasize about how much more successful I could have been at this point in my life had I received them. It was obvious to me that my friends were taking on more ambitious things, believed in themselves more, and had none of the self-doubt I had that greatly limited me.

Throughout my college years, I was just trying to survive, but what I’d really dreamed of was to thrive.  Before graduation day, I’d grown convinced that I could have been infinitely more successful as a person had I received authentic love, care and support.

To answer your question, I took up a profound interest in leadership and human potential soon after graduation. In my first job as a manager, I unconsciously asked myself how much more effective I could make people if I gave them all the support I’d always wanted and needed.  The teams I led had consistently extraordinary performance as a result. My perverse upbringing, in other words, had a profound impact on shaping me as a leader and in drawing out the best performance in other people.

team of successful business people having a meeting in executive sunlit office.jpeg

Mark tells us how he cut his teeth in the merciless financial services industry – and that is also where he discovered his talent for managing people.

MCC: I had a twenty-five year career in the financial services industry and managed people at every level — from bank tellers to fully commissioned stock brokers. What I discovered over time was that employees in every job family responded the same way to the care I was giving them; teams I led routinely achieved phenomenal results.

Honestly, I took the high performance for granted and gave little thought to why all my teams excelled like this. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that a long-time employee of mine asserted that I led people very differently than most managers. She put me on the road to discovering that my perverse upbringing had shifted me in a profound way and influenced me to manage the emotional side of work — not just the numbers. Once I understood what I was doing and was getting great results, I started to experiment with it, and refine it, and to really fully understand what it was that I was doing that could be replicable – but my motivation for doing that was only so that I could become a better leader myself. I wasn’t thinking of any further ambition like changing careers and writing a book.

Mark C. Crowley, Workplace Unplugged

As the author of Amazon Best Seller, “Lead From The Heart”, we asked Mark why he decided to write the book.

MCCThe bank where I worked for many years ended up failing (for nothing that I had anything to do with) and was quickly sold to a competitor. Almost immediately, I could see that the leaders at the new organization shared none of my values. I ended up leaving the company after about six months.

I really had no idea what I was going to do next, but a strong voice in my head started telling me that this would be a great time to write a book. And I listened. My initial plan was to share the things I’d learned throughout my career — the practices. I started laying out and planning these chapters. But about 10 months into the process, I was on the phone with a good friend of mine (someone who knew me and what I was hoping to achieve) and he said, “You know you’re going to have to explain why your practices work, don’t you? Otherwise people will think you need a shitty childhood to lead this way.” I was stunned. I hadn’t given any thought to explaining them; I assumed people were going to take me on merit.

Knowing my friend was right, I started thinking about what it was that made my practices so impactful. What was it that I was doing that affected people so deeply that they routinely scaled mountains for me? And one day it hit me that, all along, I’d been affecting the hearts in people.

Well, that all sounded really great for about three seconds, but having come from one of the most ruthless, cutthroat kinds of work environments: financial services, I knew that if I used the word “heart” in the context of leadership, that people would immediately wonder, “What’s wrong with Mark? I mean, what happened to this guy?  Did he have some kind of a spiritual transformation? Everyone knows you don’t bring the heart into business.”

You see, we’ve been led to believe leading with any amount of heart is soft and weak and undermines a leader’s effectiveness. Getting close to, and caring about people will backfire. So, you just manage the numbers, pay people, and call it a day. “You do a good job, we keep you, you don’t do a good job, we find somebody else”. This is traditional leadership theory and how we’ve run businesses forever.

I went looking for as much evidence to validate my thesis and, honestly, it was like dominoes falling. In meetings with two of the nation’s top research organizations, I learned we’ve reached the lowest point in history with respect to employee engagement, job satisfaction and happiness. People are willing to give far less of themselves to their companies in terms of loyalty and discretionary effort. As I saw how all these metrics were trending negatively and asked myself why people had grown so unhappy, I discovered it’s because people have greatly evolved in what they need and want in exchange for work, and we haven’t adapted to this. We haven’t changed how we lead and manage in over 100 years.

Finally, I reached out to a world-class cardiologist (heart surgeon) and I just laid out my thesis. I told her about my great success as a leader and asked her directly, “was I affecting the hearts in people? Is there any science that could explain why people performed so extraordinarily for me?”

This doctor, who graduated at the top of her class at NYU’s Medical School, told me directly that I had figured out something medical science was just discovering. She told me that science believed for three hundred years that all human intelligence was locked in the mind and the heart is just a blood pump. She said that they’re now finding they were wrong! She went on to tell me that research shows the heart and the mind are connected, and the heart has it’s own separate intelligence, independent of the mind. So, consistent with what I learned in management, we now know that feelings and emotions drive human behavior. What we feel influences our choices, our motivations.

She said that when I was caring about my people, when I was growing people, when I was appreciating people, when I made people feel safe and connected to me, and really made them feel that the work that they were doing mattered, I couldn’t have been doing anything better in terms of setting people up for success. This meeting was life changing and influenced me to title my book, “Lead From The Heart.”

Mark C. Crowley, Workplace Unplugged

Hiring the right people for leadership roles is one of the most critical aspects of managing people. Mark says the biggest mistake he sees is hiring people for management roles who do not know how to develop their team.

MCC: I think we too often pick the wrong people for management roles. I really believe we’re using the wrong model for who should be in management. Historically, it’s been about who has gotten the numbers in the past. Or people with tenure. So, we tend to make managers out of the top salespeople or someone who’s been around a long time instead of picking people who are natural advocates for other people. What we really need to be looking for are people who are caring, people who are instinctively advocates for the success and growth of other people. The test should be that that when other people work for them, those employees thrive and do great work. For this to happen, managers can’t compete against their people, they’re not threatened by their people – exactly the opposite of what happens in many cases. So often, managers are threatened by the people they’re supposed to be helping and they hold back information, don’t share, and step on the hands of people that they think are climbing up the ladder behind them. What we really need are people who are self-secure & fully understand that their job is to maximize their employee’s potential.

I’ll give you an example. There was a player on the San Diego Padres back in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  He was a mediocre player at best — a back-up catcher on a lousy team.  He played 9 seasons without ever distinguishing himself as a star.  But, he was good enough to play at the major league level for almost a decade. Nevertheless, the San Diego Padres made him their manager and he took them to the World Series pretty quickly. The Padres had only been to the World Series one time in their thirty year career at that point. They lost the Series and he didn’t take them to playoffs the next year, so they fired him. Well, the San Francisco Giants hired him and he’s since gone on to win three World Series’ with them. This guy will go into the Hall Of Fame as one of the most successful managers ever! While he wasn’t the star player, he was a fantastic coach. He’s somebody who knows how to build teams, who knows how to develop talent, who knows how to teach collaboration, cooperation, that kind of a guy. This is where I’m going – you need somebody who cares about and can maximize human potential not just somebody who understands the business.

Throughout the course of my career, I’ve seen plenty of people who have the core competency, who do so many destructive things to people in the interest of self-preservation, or keeping their own recognition up, or advocating for their own careers. What they don’t understand is that what companies need to do is reward the people who are advocating for other people. The better developer of people you are, the higher you go in your career. This is what we need to do. If you’ve got thirty percent engagement, which is basically where we are and have been for the last six or seven years, that means seventy percent of people are just either ‘blah’ or really unhappy. What if you turned those people on? It comes down to the manager. Engagement is driven by the manager mostly, not the organization. If companies are to change their model of who they put into those roles, they could have a profound impact. To me, it comes down to caring. A binary question: Do they care about themselves and their success and their own money and recognition? Or do they care about others?  If it’s all about them they can’t succeed.

Mark C. Crowley, managing millennials workplace unplugged

Mark shares his top tips for managing millennials.

MCCThe first thing every leader should know is that millennials want a coach. They don’t want a manager.  They want advocacy and to have somebody that’s looking out for them. They’re demanding this. We have this deep focus on millennials, but the truth is, everybody wants this, but millennials are demanding it, and they won’t stay unless they get it. So, this is a big one. They want a coach.

Millennials have a reputation for being on the job for a month and then asking, “When do I get to be CEO?” That’s the joke, but deep down what they’re looking for is growth. They’re looking for development, and this goes back to why you need to coach. Coaches teach, they share, they encourage, they reward. The growth and the coaching go hand in hand. There is also a reputation about millennials that they’re mercenaries, meaning that they’re not going to stay with you and and are unwilling to commit. That’s just not true. They’re willing to commit if they get what they need from work. If the environment isn’t giving them what they want, they’re willing to move on to find it. This is uncharacteristic of most previous generations where people said, I’m lucky to have a job, I’ll put up with a bad boss, or a bad working environment or culture.

The millennials just aren’t wired this way. We misunderstand this and say that they’re mercenaries and disloyal, but what they’re really saying is, “I’ll be loyal as soon as I’m given a reason to be loyal. As soon as I’m given an environment where I think I can plant roots.” This forces leaders to ask themselves, “Am I willing to create the environment that’s going to be receptive to that?”  And to those leaders I’d say this generation of workers is already forty percent of the market, and it’s going to be seventy percent in the next ten years. So, people that don’t get on board with this are going to miss out.

I think probably the one thing that most people don’t spend time doing is thinking about how the millennials were shaped. In many cases they saw their parents get laid off or lose jobs after working extremely long hours for years and years. This taught millennials that companies don’t really value employees and will toss them aside when the financial need is there. Loyalty goes both ways and millennials are demanding that their employers earn it.

The last component of this is that this is a generation that wants to integrate work with personal life. We see that the classic millennial attire is the hoodie, whereas in the old days people were wearing suits and ties to work. Work attire is almost the same as personal attire, so what’s kind of happened is that people blur the lines between their work time and their play time. They want the flexibility of not being restricted into, “you have to be in the office from eight o’clock in the morning when the bell rings until five o’clock at night when the bell rings.” That’s just not how they work. So giving flexibility in terms of when and where people work is going to emerge as the biggest trend there is. If companies and bosses aren’t giving people some flexibility of when they work and where they work, they’re not going to succeed. People don’t want to be confined to a rigid schedule where they’ve got to be punching the clock at eight o’clock every morning.  This is not a generation that’s going to go for that.

We asked Mark about the future of the workplace.

MCCOne of the interesting things you see right now is that the top technology firms like Google and Apple are spending billions of dollars on their facilities and yet these are the very same organizations that created the technology that lets people work remotely. So, you kind of wonder “Why would you be putting all of this money into an organization’s facility when people could just as easily now work from home?” Amazon is another one that’s creating extraordinarily creative workspace. All of these workplaces are beautiful and inspiring — and expensive. And the reason they’re all doing this comes back to my thesis. Ironically, it’s all about the heart. It’s all about connection.

Human beings thrive in being with other people and having relationships with other people. We need this. Loneliness is one of the darkest things that happens to people and when people work from home, the first thing that they miss is the collegiality. Even if you’re not in the office all the time, what you want are places for people to come and be with their team and be with people, have social interactions. This is not only what builds a cohesive team, but it’s also what human beings need in order to thrive. These are very smart organizations who have figured it out. So, somebody reading this, or hearing this, if they’re in facilities they might be thinking well, we’re not going to need buildings anymore because people are all going to be working remotely. The fact of the matter is, that is very destructive. Most people can’t do that very well; they quickly feel alienated and lost. Not only that, if everybody is working in different places, you lose the quick water-cooler conversation that leads to innovation, where people are sharing ideas. These tech firms cannot afford to lose this.

The point is, organizations are spending billions of dollars on facilities simply because they know that they need to have them in order for people to thrive, and you can’t take them away. The idea of going cheap, or making utilitarian offices so that people can come in every day and sit in different places without having any personalization, there’s a great risk in that. Obviously, they know that people sit in space for a small amount of time in the day, but you’ve got to enrich the space that makes people feel really good about being there. Remember, feelings and emotions drive human behavior, so if you create an environment that creates bad feelings, then you’ve done nothing but harm. Go the other way; create cool space. By the way, the other thing about millennials is that they don’t want to work in the same place all day even within their own office!  So, creating cool little alcoves, and places where people can take their laptop and go work for a couple of hours or have a phone call that’s not in their office, or sit around and talk to people. This is the way that you’re going to tap into the new thinking. 

To learn more about Mark’s work read a recent Forbes Magazine article asserting his “Lead From The Heart” thesis represents the future of workplace leadership or join his 10,000 followers on LinkedIn

What is the most important leadership lesson you have learned? Share it with us in the comments below.

Photos: Shutterstock, Unsplash, Shutterstock, Startup Stock Photos