Within the Corner Office | Featuring Dr. Tom Muha, Owner/Director of The PROPEL Institute
Leaders often express frustration that their problem employees demand much of their time and attention, while the rock star employees end up being neglected. They don’t want to manage this way and don’t enjoy it, but they think there is no other option – the problems must be dealt with. But what if there is another option – one that allows leaders to direct a majority of their time and energy on strong performers? What if there is an option in which leaders get to focus on what is already going well and then work to expand it? It turns out that there is such an option, and research demonstrates its effectiveness with impressive ROIs.
I recently sat down with Dr. Tom Muha to discuss the use of PROPEL as an alternative to the more typical problem-focused management approach. Dr. Muha is a leading practitioner of positive psychology and developer of PROPEL, which is a strategy for empowering leaders and staff to work together to maintain high levels of personal satisfaction and professional performance. It applies positive psychology principles in the workplace to optimize performance, increase employment satisfaction and engagement, and fuel a great company culture. The six key principles that PROPEL promotes are:
- Passion for being at one’s best
- Relationships that are collaborative
- Optimistic problem-solving
- Proactively responding to challenges by leveraging strengths
- Energy replenishment
- Legacy by improving the lives of others
I became acquainted with Tom in February 2018 through attending his conference presentation on the use of PROPEL in healthcare. Tom’s passion and enthusiasm about PROPEL were infectious and the outcomes impressive. The potential benefit to our clients appeared significant, so I pursued PROPEL certification and have maintained an ongoing dialogue with Tom ever since.
An edited transcript of my recent conversation with Tom about PROPEL follows:
After retiring from a successful career as a consulting psychologist, you came out of retirement to develop PROPEL and begin this work. What compelled you to do this?
I had to have an open-heart surgery. When I was in the hospital, I suffered a medical error. I came to realize that the doctors and nurses there were good people who wanted to help patients, but the system was bad. It wasn’t working for me or them.
While spending 10 days in the ICU recovering from the error, I saw Martin Seligman on television talking about positive psychology. I had already been studying optimal functioning for several years and focused on the dysfunction of workplaces and individuals. But nobody had ever studied people who are successful and satisfied with their lives and work. I thought, “Wow! I want to learn about this!” and I decided that I wanted to apply it to the doctors and nurses at the hospital. They were struggling and unhappy. And, I certainly wasn’t happy with the problems I faced as a result of the medical error. That is what launched me into trying to figure out “how could I apply this research on positive psychology in the workplace?” That is my passion now and that is what PROPEL is.
The positive psychology approach really strikes a chord with me, and I think it can have a great impact in business. I know that you started out using PROPEL in healthcare. Can you tell us a little about other industries you’ve worked with?
Just this morning, I was consulting with a CEO of a major manufacturer of hand tools and similar devices. I also often work with commercial builders, project managers, electrical contracting folks, and people who are working on big buildings. There can be a lot of negativity and conflict in those situations with planning, zoning, subcontractors, and general contractors. I have also dealt with the legislature in Maryland and with financial services firms about how they reconcile making money with taking care of their clients’ best interests.
People across these industries wonder, “how do I maintain my well-being while I’m dealing with these massive challenges to my business, to my bottom line, and to collaborating with other people in order to accomplish a project?” Healthcare was the perfect place to test PROPEL because it has all those components and they measure everything. When later applied in general business, I found it worked just as well there.
Great! What trends emerge when you compare the results across different industry sectors?
Burnout. The world moves so fast. There is so much change. Leaders in every single industry feel pressured for that bottom line, to get results, and pressed for time. The flow of information they deal with is like drinking from a fire hose. They expend all this energy and go home exhausted. That tends to stress out the family system and the marriage. Nothing is quite working. They love knowing there is an evidence-based approach to what well-being looks like, how to achieve it, how to maintain your passion, and how to maintain great relationships. It is great to know that we can lay those steps out for them. Leaders that I work with love getting evidence and data that they can use to guide their decision-making.
Did you find that employees in some industries were initially more receptive than others to this positive psychology approach?
When we go into an organization, we start with people who are interested. We don’t bring PROPEL in as an educational initiative and say “Okay, everyone you are going to learn PROPEL!” That’s not how it works. We say, “Anyone who is interested or has any curiosity about having better well-being, we would love for you to talk with us. We will help you form a team, support each other and figure out how this could work for you.” Of course, there is always a handful at the top who want to learn this – they become our disciples. They become the people saying, “This is great. My life is so much better. This even works on my teenagers at home!” As soon as they begin to talk about it, they get the other people asking, “Why can’t we have that?” That is one of the PROPEL principles – leaders need to start with people who already have some passion and curiosity. They need a team of people they can turn to and who are going to work with them. They will need to include everyone eventually but not at the start.
We know that employee engagement and company culture play important roles in success or failure for an organization. There are so many different strategies out there to improve these days, so I wonder what is the “secret sauce” in PROPEL that makes it unique and fuels strong outcomes?
Gallop Survey results show that, in a typical work setting, 30% of employees are engaged and 50-55% are not engaged – these employees are doing the minimum to get the paycheck. The remaining 15-20% are actively disengaged – thwarting colleagues, sabotaging bosses, and stealing. PROPEL says it is all about winning the 50 percent in the middle. It’s a battle for the middle people to influence them and create a tipping point toward engagement.
Part of what PROPEL does is teach you how to influence people. Successful people at the top don’t know how to influence, but the ones at the bottom sure do. We have found that we can empower a group at the top who can then flip those in the middle to shift to the positive side. Research shows that you need to get at least 2 out of 3 people on board in an initiative in order to change the culture. So, our goal is to get to 70-80% by steadily shifting more and more of those in the middle to the positive side. In order to do it, you must make it attractive enough for them to want to come over into the zone where they feel like they have rekindled a passion for their work, like the people they work with, and want to be helpful to them.
What tends to happen to those people who don’t make the shift or who are entrenched in working against the organization?
It is about a 50/50 split in my experience. About half the people either leave or are asked to leave because of their bad behavior. They lose their platform and power in a PROPEL culture. The other half sees where the bus is going and decides to get on it. I have seen huge turnarounds. One of the most pronounced was when I was working in a major academic medical center and a very tragic situation occurred. A senior nurse refused to help a brand-new nurse with a mother who had just given birth. The new nurse was unsure if the mother was okay. She approached the senior nurse, but the nurse refused to help her and said, “you should know what you’re doing.” The mother died. That senior nurse became one of the biggest advocates of PROPEL. She felt so guilty, stating, “What I did was inconceivable! I’m burnt out. I don’t know what else to do and this is not the person I want to be.” She totally transformed herself; she became a huge positive force by standing up, owning her error, and by talking about what it is like to be burnt out and how PROPEL had helped her to overcome that.
What a powerful example, Tom. It is remarkable that she so openly owned the responsibility for being unwilling to help, especially when helping others is so key to a nurse’s role.
Now let’s talk more about managing others. We know that getting work done well through others and managing performance is tough. Some people really enjoy it and some don’t love this aspect of their job. It seems that taking a positive psychology approach can make managing people so much more rewarding and enjoyable.
This is so true for so many leaders. It is hard, and what makes it hard is that they spend most of their time dealing with that actively disengaged 15-20%. No wonder their job stinks! Who wants to spend most of their time dealing with those people and arguing with them? That is not a good job and it is not being a leader. A leader means you are leading people somewhere else to have a different outcome. So, who are you going to lead? You are going to lead those top people who are hungry to learn how to advance and make progress. Leaders in PROPEL learn how to get people to align with them around achieving their desired outcome. They learn to influence people and move them toward a place where there is alignment and where people want to go. They are willing to get on board and work hard to achieve a positive outcome. This approach not only has a positive impact on company culture and results, it also has a huge impact on the well-being of leaders.
Absolutely. As leaders, shifting our mindset and focusing our efforts on those who want to grow and improve has such a powerful impact for our health, satisfaction and success. And the ripple effect is just huge.
Thank you for what you are doing, Tom, for allowing us to play a part in it, and for taking the time to share with our readers today.