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Delving into Employee Experience – An Interview with David Zinger

Sterling Sweeney

Last Updated:  

9 April 2024

8 min read

Disengagement should not be a punishable offence. It should be a trigger for a conversation. 

Today SurveySparrow, the makers of your favourite online survey software, had the opportunity to chat with employee experience expert David Zinger about his involvement in the world of EX. David is both a prolific author and the founder of the 7200 member Employee Engagement Network. Let’s jump into the interview then.

SurveySparrow: First off, thank you for giving us the opportunity to chat with you today about your experience in the EX space. You’ve been involved in employee experience for over 45 years now. Why don’t you kick things off by telling us a little bit more about your history within the world of employee engagement?

David: My history goes back to being a child and sitting around the family dinner table and hearing my father, who was an executive on the railroad. We would hear him talk about work, about being thwarted there, of all his complaints, but also about his progress and triumphs.

My mother also worked, which was unusual 50 years ago. I absorbed a lot about work through these early conversations.

Later in life, I taught counselling and educational psychology at the University of Manitoba, but simultaneously for 15 years I was also an employee assistance counselor, and career development coach at Seagrams.

I was actually on-site and I could go anywhere within the plant. Employees could easily seek me out. I’m indebted to the present 200 employees of that plant site for teaching me so much about the work experience.

Another influencing factor was the fact that I read William Kahn’s article on personal engagement about 30 years ago as well, and I was very enamored with the term engagement and personal engagement. So, after that, I formed an engagement network, now called the employee experience engagement network.

I’ve traveled around the world and to this day, I’m very fascinated by our relationship with work.

SurveySparrow: In your 40 + years of experience I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share of successes and failures. What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced throughout those years and how did they shape your career?

David: One obstacle has been changing the way we look at engagement. I try to get others to see engagement in a broader sense other than just employee engagement. There’s leadership engagement, there’s organizational engagement, there’s engagement all the time, and our engagement may change by the minute, by the hour, by the day. I’ve challenged individuals and organizations to think about how they approach engagement.

I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job educating employees on the benefits of engagement, not just for the organization, but for themselves. I believe we’re personally responsible for our own engagement, and we’re accountable for the influence we have on each other’s engagement.

This has been a struggle. For example, when I was working in the Middle East, I felt my work was like putting lipstick on a camel. At the end of the day, it’s still a camel.  And it’s not just the Middle East. This has been true in North America and Asia as well. Affecting big change can be a challenge.

The other thing is, I think we’ve vastly overinflated the levels of disengagement. It’s a very self-serving bias by consultancies, I think in some ways to sell their services. I don’t believe that there are 70% levels of disengagement. For example, I may talk in front of a group of 500 people and say, “all of you who are disengaged, please raise your hand”.

Based on these stats you would expect 350 people to raise their hand. However, generally, there are maybe three or four people who put up their hand. Now I know for some people it doesn’t feel psychologically safe to raise their hand, but nevertheless I think we’ve confused the matter a bit and inflated the numbers.

SurveySparrow: David Zinger Associates has been around for a long time. Your company follows the approach of the “10-block pyramid of engagement”. How did you come up with this way of thinking? What other approaches have you tried and tested prior to that?

David: I have used a number of approaches around engagement and currently I’m really working on a power cycle, really focused on helping individuals prevent burnout, reduce stress, maximize performance, and follow a very simple, albeit not easy model for their own engagement that really keys in with my belief in personal responsibility for engagement.

The Ten block pyramid of engagement was a multi-study of all the people working in engagement, trying to figure out what levers needed manipulation to achieve results. The goal was to figure out how to build relationships, to maximize performance, to handle setbacks and progress, to be involved in recognition, to master moments, to work on strengths, to connect to wellbeing and meaning and to really look at energy.

I shifted it into a pyramid so it was visually simple to understand and wasn’t based on too many words. This model is attributed to John Wooden, a great basketball coach out of UCLA, who developed a pyramid for how athletes should approach the sport of basketball. And I really liked that model. My model is quite different, but it still uses the structure of the pyramid.

SurveySparrow: You graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Master’s of Education that specializes in Counselling Psychology. From there, you went on to found Vital Balance Consulting which was the company that preceded David Zinger Associates. How much has your background in psychology helped you to get you where you are today?

David: I love psychology, I love how we see the world, how we construct the world, how we relate to each other, how we relate to our work. Psychology is so embedded in how I see the world, but I barely know that I’m seeing the world from that structure. I love what we can do around reducing stress and eliminating burnout, I love the elements that we ourselves can construct and master to impact engagement. I’m very attuned with the work of academia on work engagement. As psychology relates to EX, I think we should experiment, run small pilot projects, forget the best case and use the test case.

If you’re not authentic in approaching engagement, you’re not really working with engagement. You’re working with manipulation.

SurveySparrow: Our technology continues to improve over time. Users in the EX space can easily access apps that can help them gather internal feedback – something which wasn’t available 30 or so years ago. Because of technology, giving and receiving feedback within the workplace is much easier now. How can employers best use survey software to make improvements with EX?

David: Surveys definitely play a role in engagement. they help us to get a sense of the pulse of the organization. But we need to make them more timely, we need them to be Just in time.

My engagement changes, maybe 20 or 30 times any given day, so an annual survey won’t capture anywhere near the richness of what’s going on. This has got to influence how we see engagement. When we people take surveys, we need to make them know their own results, otherwise, they can think the organization is paternalistic, where data can be changed upon receiving. Instead, we need to respond to whatever surveys we get from people.

I remember in one organization, I was speaking to 400 employees, and I asked for the surveys. I looked through the anecdotes and, I read some of the anecdotes and one of them was a very negative anecdote, but I thought people needed to know that there was a diversity of how people saw this workplace.

During the coffee break, a person came up to me and said, “Thank you for reading my anecdote”. I thought she was talking about the very positive one. And I said, “well, you’re welcome you must really enjoy working here”. She said,  “Oh no, mine was a very negative one, but until you stood in front of 400 people and read that aloud, I didn’t know that anyone even looked at it”. We need to make sure that employees know that any survey data they give is important. I come once again from psychology, so I’d like to see more experiments with surveys.

I would like to see a level of psychological safety in organizations so that we could cut through a lot of the anonymity to give a manager feedback about disengaged employees. Disengagement should not be a punishable offence it should be a trigger for a conversation.

SurveySparrow: You’re always an advocate in bringing out the best from others in the workplace. This is a belief you adhere to, which can be seen in the topics you discuss regularly on your blog. But the needs of humans at work aren’t the only things that should be addressed. The workplace has needs of its own as well (having a purpose, driving culture, delivering clarity, etc.). How does one balance the requirements of these two aspects to improve their employee engagement?

David: Once again, my bias in psychology is I’m probably predisposed to really focusing on the individual as I think they tend to be neglected. But it’s not just engagement for ourselves, it’s about what the contribution is. And sometimes, contributions and progress are the very things that do engage us.

There’s a Spice Girls song that goes, “tell me what you want what you really, really want, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want”. All kidding aside, I think that’s a beautiful statement about what we strive for as organizations. We need to tell people what we want, while at the same time listen to what employees want. And from there we can work to discover the meaning behind it all. So more dialogue and more connection. But Gosh, that’s so tricky, if you have 200,000 people working in your organization, spread around the world. I’m not pretending any of this is easy, even if the practices themselves are quite simple.

SurveySparrow: In one of your posts, you mentioned the 3-Circle Power Cycle of Caring and Engagement, which you’ve been applying for 35 years to prevent burnout. You even worked on a book and an online mini-course specifically just on this topic. In your experience, what are the top three things that lead people to get “burnt out”?

David: There are different sources of burnout, it could be an idealization of things and then leading to frustration and ultimately to demoralization. It could be a very big imbalance between the demands of our work and the resources that we have for our work. It can be that the amount that we give, and the amount that we get is out of sync. It also can be influenced by other elements of our life. And so it’s not just burnout in relationship with our work.

It could be some of the stresses of parenting, it could be budgets or it could be other things. So I really do use the power cycle, it looks at the strengths you have for the work you do, making a transition to focus on just that. Also, leveraging the power of caring and the many different ways we can care for a task or for people.

SurveySparrow: Lastly, as an employee experience leader with decades of knowledge in the industry, you truly have a unique perspective. You’ve seen different generations of people enter and exit the workforce. Right now you’re witnessing a new generation of employees entering the workforce for the first time. How can EX be designed in a way to handle the different needs of people who have fundamentally different ways of looking at the world? Even with companies who have smaller teams of under 10 people, there is still a massive variance in the workforce. How should leaders and employers design EX to be easy and standardized (to make it predictable and salable), while at the same time making it customizable to be relevant at the individual level? 

David: It’s a great question that you asked. It’s a complex answer, and I really don’t want to pretend to have a simple answer. People play a role in their own experience. So are we educating people in regards to that? Are we promoting healthy scepticism?  Often times we talk about generational differences or cultural differences, but I tend to see things as more similar than different.

If you’re an organization, if you’re not willing to give the time, energy and resources to really improve employee engagement or enhance the employee experience, you may be better off doing nothing. I mean that sincerely.

Sometimes I’ve seen things which were done half-heartedly, which actually created more disengagement, or actually dis-improved or, damaged the employee experience along the way. As much as I believe there’s so much to be gained from employee engagement and addressing the employee experience, I do believe in certain cases that it may be best just left alone.

If you don’t have the capacity, if you don’t have the resources, or you’re going to switch to another flavor of the month within a few months if it doesn’t show immediate results, it might be best just to leave it. However, what I do hope is that you’ll engage along with me, because our best is yet to be. Thank you very much for your questions.

Thank you for taking the time to chat with us today David. To our blog readers, if you’d like to learn more about David and the work he does, we suggest you head over to his website here.


Sterling Sweeney

Sterling Sweeney is a growth hacker and the founder of WhalePages, a SaaS marketing agency which is a platform designed to help SaaS companies scale.

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