Andrew Freedman has devoted decades of his career to understanding what makes individuals in an organization tick, even as a staggering majority of American workers report feeling disengaged and disempowered at work. Andrew lays out a blueprint for organizational success in his book, Thrive: The Leader’s Guide to Building a High-Performance Culture.

In our interview, Andrew laid out the shifts that can help leaders and employees alike leverage their personal agency and contribute to meaningful work.

Emily Gindlesparger: So today, I’m joined by Andrew Freedman, author of Thrive. Welcome, Andrew, it’s great to have you on the podcast.

Andrew Freedman: Thank you very much. I am glad to be here with you. This is the highlight of my day and it’s been a pretty good day.

Emily Gindlesparger: Let’s begin by giving listeners an idea of your personal background and what brought you to write this book.

Andrew Freedman: There are a couple of things that people tell me they find a little interesting about my makeup and who I am. And I’ll start just by saying, especially because you and I were talking about dogs earlier, I am a self-described mutt. My mom taught elementary school for 35 years. So, I’ve got that educational teaching bent and background in my DNA. And my dad was a high-level sales exec and sales leader for about the same period of time. I’ve got this interesting blend of achievement, sales, high performance, but also lifelong learning, and continuous education.

When I think about who I am, literally why I’m here on this planet, and what I was put here to do, and how this led into the book, it’s really about empowering others to be better, whatever that means for them. So, every interaction that I have with people inclusive of this one, I aspire to leave people more inspired, more equipped, more educated, more motivated, with more access to something–skills, knowledge, data–that’s going to help them be more of who they want for the world. And because of that, this book has been really stirring inside of me for the better part of probably seven or eight years. So, over the last two years, as you know, I’ve been cranking away at bringing it to life. And here we are, I couldn’t be more excited.

Emily Gindlesparger: How did you land on a focus on company culture specifically?

Andrew Freedman: Well, I’ve been doing this in the way that I’m doing it now for over 20 years and working with as many companies as I have, and just talking to people in general. Culture, undoubtedly, is the most foundational element that leads to high levels of engagement, and high levels of performance. And if companies don’t get culture right, it absolutely creates drag. So, you get people who are literally not wanting to go to work every day, they’re miserable in what they do, they’re doing it because they feel like they have to not because they want to. That’s no way for anybody to go through life.

I believe it’s just criminal that anybody would feel that way about where they spend more waking hours in their life than anywhere else, which is at work. When I think about this intersection of who I am and what I stand for, and what I see in so many organizations, that was it. I realized, “I have to bring this to life. I have to.”

Emily Gindlesparger: In the foreword, you tell this story of how your mother decided to leave your father and then how her decision influenced the way that you started to look at your life and turn it around. I’m curious, how does your personal experience inform the way you started to think about personal drive?

Andrew Freedman: When I think about who I am, there were so many times when I was growing up that I remember. As I say in the foreword, I had a good childhood. I was very fortunate to go to a good college. I went to Tulane in New Orleans, and it was probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in life. I had a good job.

When I came out of college I was in the health and fitness industry. It was good, good, good along the way. I also knew that somewhere deep inside me, I was just playing small, and I wasn’t quite going through the motions, but I wound up getting into a marriage and I truly knew the day after I got married–I thought, “Oh!” You know that feeling of a pit in your stomach? I realized, “Bad decision, Andrew. Wrong. You pride yourself on making good decisions and this was a bad one.”

I was playing small. I felt like there was something I should be doing. I felt like that this is a person that I could help because she was a little bit in distress and my previous relationships hadn’t worked out. I thought, “Andrew, you have to get this right, show yourself you can do it.” So, it was a bad decision, a bad decision, and playing small. When I saw my mom have enough courage to leave my father, and I learned some of the things she was living with for her life, I thought, “Gosh, darn it. Dude, you got to stop, you got to stop this. You have to be true to who you are. You have to stop playing small. You’re here to do more, and if you are going to leave a legacy behind of impact, which is what you stand for, you have to start by living it yourself.”

For me, that was the deciding moment where I said, “No more.” I have to change the way you think. Really have to behave in a way that aligns with what you believe, because you’re operating out of integrity. And that wasn’t okay with me.

Playing Small

Emily Gindlesparger: I imagine that in this microcosm of your personal life, you also see the macro picture of this in company culture. In what ways does playing small affect companies and business?

Andrew Freedman: I teach part-time at a local university here online, University of Baltimore, which is a great institution. And I see so many students come through. I’m an affiliate professor, and I do the capstone class, which is a business strategy and leadership class. I am all that stands between the students and their MBA. I mean, they’ve gone through an undergrad, they’ve gone through an MBA journey, these are folks who have accomplished a lot in their life.

When they tell me about the work that they do, many of them, they’re first line leader, or middle manager, or director-level roles, and the number of people who say, “Yeah, but Andrew, all this stuff you’re teaching, you don’t understand, I’m not in a position, my title is not big enough to really bring about big change. There’s nothing I can do. That’s five pay grades above me or two pay grades above me.”

It pains me to hear people say that, but that’s the reality that many people are living with every day. That’s an example of playing small, which is I’m lacking something, a title, compensation structure, tenure experience, and because of that, I attach myself to this belief that I’m not enough and my opinion doesn’t count, and my voice doesn’t matter, and nobody would ever take me seriously.

This is the way that people think every day. These students, I’m giving you that example, but we see this in companies all the time when we come in and executives want to understand why they can’t get their people to perform at higher levels. Some of it is because the people are playing small, and they’re doing it partly because of their belief structure and partly because of barriers that organizational leaders put in place unintentionally, that keep people down, keep them in check. Keep them in their place. They thwart innovation and creative thinking and courage, really.

Emily Gindlesparger: Wow. Yeah, and it sounds like this facet of cultivating good and supportive culture is really about leveraging greater degrees of people’s personal agency.

Andrew Freedman: Yes, that’s a great word. Absolutely. No doubt about it.

Emily Gindlesparger: You write very early on in the book, this statistic just staggered me, that 70% of the American workforce is disengaged. How do you account for that?

Andrew Freedman: Some of what I was just describing, but I mean, 70%, it is a staggering number. And that number hasn’t changed dramatically or materially through wars and times of peace, through Republicans and Democrats, through booms and busts economically, so it’s not like somebody could look at and go, “Oh, it’s just the past three years”, or, “Oh, it’s just this thing.” I mean, this number has persisted.

Some of this gets back to what we’re living in many cases–and this is changing, thankfully–but from an education standpoint, still, the industrial revolution way of educating people. It’s kind of like manufacturing line thinking from an education standpoint, leaders oftentimes are still leading in a very command and control kind of way. So, back to that word agency you used, people don’t feel like or they don’t have agency, they don’t feel like they have a voice. They don’t feel like it’s a fair or equitable playing field.

I mean, at the time that we’re recording this, just look at what’s happened this year, not just the pandemic and politics, but think about social unrest, and injustice and the way that people are feeling and the way they’re acting out in some cases because they want to have a voice, they want to be heard. They want to know that they matter.

When people don’t feel that way, when they don’t feel like their personal mission or their vision is connected to the work that they’re doing, then they truly sleepwalk when they’re coming to work. They’re going to work just kind of glazed over. Going through the motions. I mean, how many people do you talk to? Hopefully not a lot, who say, when you ask, “How was your day?” And they say, “It was all right. Same stuff, different day. Just getting by. It’s just a paycheck, working for the man.” Those are the kinds of sentiments that the majority of people really feel about their work.

Leaders, unfortunately, haven’t been shown or given access to a better way. And thankfully, Thrive is here, because that is the better way. This is an easy blueprint for people to put into place, but that’s why that 70% number has existed for so long.

High Performance

Emily Gindlesparger: Wow. And sadly that question you asked of how many people do you know that are just sleepwalking through their jobs, and you ask them how their day was, and it’s, “Fine, whatever.” That’s most of the people that I know that I don’t work with, which is so sad and unfortunate. Your book provides a blueprint for how to turn that around, and how to create high-performance culture.

Tell us a little bit about how you define high performance and what does it look like in action?

Andrew Freedman: High-performance culture or high performance exists when individuals, teams, and organizations consistently meet or exceed the defined standards of excellence in a way that aligns with a company’s vision, values, goals, and strategies. That’s high performance. Oftentimes, people confuse high performance with hard work, and we’ll meet leaders and they’ll say, “I have a high performing organization.” And we ask them by what measure, and they say, “Well, we’re profitable, and we hit our revenue goal, and our people work really hard.” None of those things, really, make it a high-performance culture.

In fact, we’ve worked with many organizations where those things that I just said are true. And it’s not a high-performance culture. Just because you’re profitable, or you’re meeting the Wall Street expectations, doesn’t mean you’re high performance.

When you think about what’s happened in 2020, with COVID, and people working remotely and all these things, if an organization really had a high-performance culture, then they would have an easier time making the transition to this virtual or ‘work from anywhere world’ and their people wouldn’t be experiencing things like massive burnout, and emotional distress. People working on average, and this is a statistic that is true, people are working about four hours more a day through this pandemic. Four hours more a day.

So, they’re working harder, they’re working longer, they’re more stressed out, they’re more emotionally drained. To me, that’s not a high-performance culture. That’s a functioning culture for a period. That’s a hard-working culture, maybe, but it’s not high performance. And so that’s a problem.

Where you would start, if you want to move towards a high-performance culture, other than reading the book, of course, is really making sure that the organization has a really sound vision and a really bold, ambitious vision, that is the North Star that unifies the entire organization together–where we’re going, what winning looks like, aspirationally, who we want to be, and why we exist and then connect it to that. It’s critical that there are organizational values that govern and guide the way that people think and operate.

I can say more about that in a little bit, the values piece if it’s helpful, but vision is the top and where we’re going, values are the foundation, and then really clear strategies and goals. This is, in a lot of cases, where leaders fall down–the goals and strategies aren’t clear, there are competing priorities, there are initiatives that are like pet projects. And so, when you’ve got a lack of unity and alignment in an organization, that’s one of the things that really creates a drag on morale, a drag on productivity, and it creates that high functioning, busy working, but not high performing culture.

Emily Gindlesparger: When people feel disconnected as to why it is that they’re even doing the tasks they’re doing.

Andrew Freedman: Yeah, they’re just grinding all day. I know, unfortunately, a lot of folks in my world that are not clients that I’m working with, and they’re not necessarily in the best situation, but they say, it might be Thursday in the week and they’re like, “What day is it again?” Or it’s Tuesday, and they’re like, “Is it Friday?” I mean, really, they’re losing track of time, and they’re just cranking.

I was talking to somebody the other day, you’re going to get a kick out of this, not in a good way, and the person said, “You know, I had 63 meetings last week.” Sixty-three meetings, even if those meetings were half an hour, that’s over 30 hours of meetings, how are you getting anything done? Where’s your time to breathe? Where’s your time to think creatively or critically or to connect with your people in a meaningful way? That’s not sustainable. It’s not high performing. It’s not.

Emily Gindlesparger: You came up with six factors that create exemplary performance. You’ve got this exemplary performance system. Tell us a little bit about how you determined these six different pieces that go into that.

Andrew Freedman: A lot of this comes from the gentleman that I had the pleasure of writing the book with, Paul Elliot. Combined, he and I have been doing this for over 60 years. So, some of this is just tried and true, time tested, things that we’ve experimented with. But a lot of it is or built on the shoulders of others who are industrial psychologists, organizational development experts, human performance architects, folks like Joe Harless, or Thomas Gilbert, people who really are the granddaddies in performance consulting and high performance.

So, we took a lot of what was already built and we added our life experience and our experience running our own businesses and consulting with hundreds of companies. We said, “Okay, let’s continue to iterate and improve upon this.” And really, what we want to do is make sure that what we build, and what we leverage is as precise as possible.

So, the six elements in our high-performance model, really are the most precise version of the things that can either accelerate or impede high performance and organization. So, really, they are time tested and this is from a lot of practical applications, how we distilled it to the version that we have today.

Expectations and Feedback

Emily Gindlesparger: I’ll just list them quickly. You’ve got environment, systems, and resources. That’s one. The second is rewards, recognition, and consequences. Then there’s capacity and job fit, skills and knowledge, motivation and preferences, and expectations and feedback. Of those six areas, where do you see leaders struggling the most with helping their employees access what they need?

Andrew Freedman: You’re going to love or hate this answer. Each of the six, certainly, has a role. I’m going to answer it maybe a little differently than you asked it. It goes like this. There are three arrows at the top of our model and those are the expectations and feedback, the environments, systems, and resources. And the rewards, recognition, and consequences. Those three arrows are the top half of the model. And those three of themselves, account for 75% of the ability for a system to operate in a high performing way.

The other three, the skills and knowledge, the motivations and preferences, those pieces, the capacity, and job fit, those three are internal to the individual. They’re important, but they only account for 25% of an individual team or organization’s success. So, what’s the punchline? The punchline is the three things that are external to the individual have 75% of the weight of really whether high performance is going to exist or not. And so, for leaders, what’s really critical is they understand what are the things that they’re doing unintentionally, that really hinder a team, an individual, or an organization’s ability to perform at high levels.

So, of those, now just getting to the real crux of your question. For me, it’s about expectations and feedback. I see that this is the area where most leaders fall down. The expectations in a role aren’t clear. Job descriptions are written poorly. They’re just usually lists of tasks. And so, people take a job and oftentimes in interviews, I mean, let’s just say it like it is. In interviews, the people who are the hiring managers are trying to sell the candidate on why the company’s great and take the job. And they’re really not using data-driven, algorithm-based, scientific approaches to making sure that they’re hiring right.

They’re hiring to get somebody in. They’re excited about the talent and the potential that somebody might have, but the expectations aren’t clear. And then feedback isn’t given on a regular basis. It’s like if I were an athlete, or a dancer, or a musician, and I were practicing my craft, I would get immediate feedback. If I’m a basketball player, I either make the shot or I miss the shot. It’s a successful pass or it isn’t. If I’m a musician, I hit the note or I don’t.

In the work environment, an individual is not getting real-time performance feedback. And so, when the expectations aren’t clear, and feedback is not real-time, or it isn’t helpful for an individual to get better, it all falls down. People just start making up their own best version of what they think is right, or is good, or is the best thing to do. And when you’ve got a role population in some of these companies where there are hundreds of people playing this role or thousands across the country or across the globe, that’s a lot of performance variance, because the expectations and the feedback aren’t consistent and are unclear.

Emily Gindlesparger: Amen. Yeah. Wow. I had never thought of the split that way, that 75% of essentially, an individual’s success within a company is up to the structures and the ways of operating inside the company that is already set up before they even arrive.

Andrew Freedman: And what makes it even wackier, when you think about those six factors that we just talked about, in most organizations, there’s a different owner for each one of those influences. So, you’ve got somebody who owns the environment or the systems or the resources. You have somebody else who owns recognition and rewards and consequences like compensation design. You have somebody else that’s responsible for trying to help people be more skilled and more knowledgeable and because there are different owners, you often see a lot of misalignment.

For example, let’s just take a sales role. I’m compensated to bring in new business, that’s the way I’m compensated. But my boss is always telling me about the importance of keeping customers. There’s a fat conflict right there. You’re telling me you want me to keep customers, but you’re paying me to bring in new customers, that’s a problem. That’s an easy example of how sometimes these influences are not in alignment, where they’re in conflict, and where that creates confusion. And so, it creates disengagement and performance drag.

It’s like you’re paying me to do this and I’m just thinking about my self-preservation for a minute, and then you’re telling me, I’m not doing this other thing really well. So, now, I don’t feel great about myself and I go home every day saying, “I can’t flipping win. No matter what I do, I can’t win.” That’s a bad situation.

Emily Gindlesparger: And it sounds like the onus then is on the leader to be very conscious of where they want that person’s attention to be directed, and then have the rewards and all of that stuff aligned with where they expect that person is going to be paying attention and putting their best efforts.

Andrew Freedman: Absolutely. And part of the challenge is, sometimes we’re talking about direct reports of a frontline employee, you’ve got two or three, sometimes four or more layers between that manager and executives. Oftentimes, you have executives or executive committees designing compensation, and strategies, and structures and it’s the folks who are lower down the food chain, if you will, who are tasked to implement the things and the folks who are making decisions, they’re really removed from the actual work.

They think they know what it’s like to do the work of folks, but all the research we’ve done, all the experience we have, and other research says this, which is, if you haven’t actually done a job in six months or more, that’s how fast things are changing today. You haven’t done the job in six months or more, you’ve actually lost perspective on what it’s like to do the work.

So, you don’t know what it’s like to do the work, no shame. That’s just the way it is. If you don’t know what it’s like to do the work, but you’re making decisions about the way that those people who are doing the work get paid, get incentive, get trained, get held accountable, that’s just a flawed model, right from the jump.

An Enlightened Leader

Emily Gindlesparger: And what do the success stories that are most impactful to you, what do they look like?

Andrew Freedman: They start with what I would describe as an enlightened leader, or somebody who aspires to be an enlightened leader, somebody who understands the purpose of business isn’t to make a profit. That’s the byproduct of really being a mission-driven, purpose-driven organization that understands that people really power the work that happens. This is just a quick aside. I had a client one time who said, “Gosh, if I have one more person tell me to treat my employees like customers, I’m going to puke.” And I said, “So, we probably shouldn’t be working together, because your employees are your customers, and you don’t treat your employees like customers, who’s going to actually take care of your customers?”

The success stories are where the leaders get it and they say things like, “I realized that we’ve got to create an environment and a culture that’s based on giving people agency, giving them a voice, giving them a say, having them help us understand if this is the hill that we need to climb if this is the vision of where we need to go, how do we do it most effectively?” And really include people in those decisions. Give them an opportunity to help pave the path, because in an organization, regardless of whether they have 10 or 10,000 people, they are really, really smart, talented, hungry people who want to come to work and achieve and be proud of the effort that they do. And if you just give them space, they will amaze you as a leader of what they can do.

So, where it really works, it’s because leaders are open to that. They not only endorse it, but they believe that it’s fundamental to the growth and the health and having a really vibrant company that has high levels of vitality from profitability or revenue or contribution, but really a value creation standpoint. That’s what success looks like.

Emily Gindlesparger: And what’s the low hanging fruit? What are some of the first changes that people make to go in that direction?

Andrew Freedman: An easy thing to do is a survey. Now, you have to think about what you want to ask your people. But if you create some space to ask your people what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, and their version or their vision of how the company is performing, and you want to ask things like understanding the dimension or the relationship between the individual and his or her manager, what’s that connection like? Do they really trust their manager? Do they feel like their manager has their back? Do they believe that their manager really understands what their goals and their passions are? Are they getting an opportunity to do what they’re most passionate about every day?

You want to ask them things like, “Are you clear on our vision? Are we holding ourselves and our colleagues accountable, operating in a way that aligns with our values? Are we bringing in the right kinds of talent? Do we have a low tolerance for people who don’t perform at high levels and do we handle that effectively? Do we appropriately handle people who thwart others’ passions?” We call them cultural cancers, people who go around and bring down everybody and throw wet blankets all over them because they’re just not happy with themselves.

An easy thing to do is survey all your people. It’s best if leaders get an outside party to do that. There’s just a perception that it is more objective. It’s more anonymous if you have an outside party. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. In all of our surveys, I mean, they are all anonymous. We do it in a way where we couldn’t track it back to the person even if we wanted to.

Step one is a survey. But step two, and this is the one, weirdly, that most companies get wrong, is after you do the survey, you’ve got to close the loop with your people. You’ve got to share the results. Not all the qualitative data. If you’re asking them open text questions, but at least the quantitative data, “We asked you how you were feeling about these things, and how you’re experiencing it, and here’s how we did, good, bad, or ugly.”

So, that’s step two. And then step three, which is really where the progress can be made, is then you enroll your employees. We use a process called tiger teams, which I write about in the book, where you actually bring the employees together in small groups, and you let them be part of the solution. So, the areas where the employees flagged, like, “Wow, we’re really missing the boat here. We’re really not doing well here.” You’ve given them voices.

Now, give them a little bit of autonomy, give them some responsibility. They said these were issues, now enroll them and have them help you fix some of these areas by creating these small tiger teams, these little SWAT teams of four to six people with a definite project aim and a charter, and it’s amazing how fast progress can be made by doing those three things. Ask people what they think, listen and share back the feedback, and then mobilize them to help you fix the areas. It’s super basic but so powerful.

Emily Gindlesparger: Why do you think companies need to hear that advice? What is keeping them from doing it now?

Andrew Freedman: In some cases, it’s because leaders think they already know. What’s funny is, we’ll do the surveys sometimes, and the results will come back and the leaders will read the results and they say, “Oh, yeah, that’s what I thought my people were going to say.”

So, we’ve been toying around with this notion of having leaders take the survey themselves as they think their people are going to answer it. “Tell us what you think your people are going to say.” Then let the people say it and then match up and see how aligned they are or not.

We think that would be kind of cool, kind of funny, because the point here, it’s not about whether you knew it or not. The point is, what are you going to do about it? And for many leaders who don’t get this part of the equation, one, they think they already know the answers, so why bother? Two, they’re actually afraid. They’re afraid of what they’re going to hear. They’re afraid that they’re going to be outed as an imposter in their mind.

This imposter syndrome is something that all humans deal with to a certain level, like heck, I was even experiencing this when I was writing the book, which was, “I’m not an author. I’ve never written a book before. Who am I to write a book? What do I know about writing a book?” But you have to get over that as an individual.

For many leaders, they’ve ascended. There’s this old Peter Principle, which is you promote people to the level of their incompetence. And so, you’ve got executive leaders, some of them who are really, really fragile as humans, and they say, “How did I get here?” And they have nobody to talk to because they’re in such a small inner circle because of their altitude in the organization, that who are they going to share that with, their insecurities, their frailties, their vulnerabilities? That’s a really scary thing for folks.

So, in a lot of cases, they’re just afraid to ask because they might get an answer that they don’t know what to do with or that might say, “You’re not an effective leader.” And then say, “Oh, my God, what am I supposed to do now?” Those are the two big reasons. They think they know the answer or they’re afraid of the answer they might get.

Emily Gindlesparger: Playing small again, we’ve come back full circle

Andrew Freedman: About that. Yeah.

Emily Gindlesparger: Well, Andrew, this has been such a wonderful conversation. And I’m so glad that your book exists in the world to help make companies and cultures better. If you wanted listeners to take away one or two things from the book, what would they be?

Andrew Freedman: Start with a definition of success. That’s number one. You got to define it. What does a winning culture look like? What are the most critical roles that power that winning culture or strategies or structure in those roles? What does good really look like? All those things ladder back to, you have to start with defining what winning looks like. That’s number one.

Number two is, stop playing small. Stop playing small. We’re not going to get anywhere in terms of capturing the upside potential of the impact that we could have on our employees, on our customers, on our communities truly on the world by playing small. There are really magnificent transformations that we can bring about if we just get out of our comfort zone, get out of our own way, and stop playing small.

Emily Gindlesparger: Beautiful. Thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure speaking with you and I’m really excited about what you’re doing and what this book will do for people. Again, the book is called Thrive: The Leader’s Guide to Building a High-Performance Culture. And besides checking out the book, where can people find you?

Andrew Freedman: The easiest way is on our website. So, that is Our website for the book, certainly, Those are easy ways. I’m easy to find on any social channel, A. Freedman, Thrive, that’s on Instagram or LinkedIn, or Facebook. I’m happy to connect with anybody who is interested in and passionate about changing the way that leaders run their organizations. Emily, you’ve been awesome. I really appreciate this conversation.

Emily Gindlesparger: Me too. Thank you, Andrew.