Motivate and engage your employees through increased autonomy

Hovering over your workers or making them follow rigid protocols saps morale and hinders productivity and innovation. Here’s a much better way.

Whether your goal is to increase staff motivation, engagement or morale, give your employees more autonomy.

This means giving them more room to make decisions, to think for themselves, to “own” their jobs. In short, it’s allowing them to think—and act—like a small-business owner. Doing so will benefit your bottom line.

In his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Really Motivates Us,” Daniel Pink cites a study revealing that satisfying the human need for self-sufficiency enhances employee performance.

In that Cornell University study, half of the 320 small businesses studied applied old-fashioned command/control management practices, while the other half gave employees autonomy.

Those businesses that gave employees autonomy:

  • Grew four times faster than the businesses using command/control management
  • Experienced only one-third the turnover of their command/control counterparts

Furthermore, research conducted by BlessingWhite and published in A Study of Voluntary Effort in the Workforce revealed that “Responsibility for one’s work” was the No. 1 driver of discretionary effort.

In other words, if you want employees to go “above and beyond,” give them more autonomy.

Increased autonomy engenders greater resilience

Command/control environments that do not allow employees to think for themselves, make their own decisions, and try new things—i.e., that don’t allow autonomy—create an atmosphere that fosters “learned helplessness.”

Employees in such environments learn that thinking for themselves and acting on their own are pointless, so they don’t even try. Instead, they passively await orders.

In contrast, when employees get the chance to think and act like small-business owners—i.e., when they have autonomy—they continuously build greater confidence and resourcefulness. They build greater self-efficacy and the perception that they can “handle it,” whatever “it” is.

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Because of this, these employees have far greater resilience. Resilient employees not only can handle the demands and pressures of a “do more with less” workplace more easily, but they also respond more resourcefully to major changes and challenges.

Resilient employees are “can do” employees.

10 things that managers should do

If you want more motivated, engaged, and “can do” employees, do the following:

  1. Share this article with your fellow managers, so everyone understands the importance of giving your employees autonomy.
  2. Share this article with your direct reports, and ask them where they would like more autonomy in their jobs.
  3. If you question an employee’s ability to handle greater autonomy, let them know your concerns, why you feel that way, and what they can do to remedy this. Negotiate a game plan that includes “baby steps” so they can develop a track record that demonstrates their increased responsibility, decision-making ability and/or skill level.
  4. Ask your employees whether they have the tools, training, knowledge and resources to “run their business” well.
  5. If you micromanage, stop.
  6. When you give an assignment, whenever possible let employees decide on the “how.”
  7. Let employees explore new methods of doing things, both within and outside their department.
  8. If an employee offers an impractical idea , but the downside of its not working is minimal, share your perspective but consider letting them try their idea. With minimal downside risk, even if it doesn’t work, the engagement-enhancing benefits will far outweigh the cost.
  9. If an employee tries something and it fails, treat it like the great learning experience it can be. Debrief them; ask them questions about what they learned and how they can use that learning in the future. The last thing you want is for your employees to fear thoughtful experimentation and innovation.
  10. Celebrate employees who experiment and generate new ideas.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@Work and the creator of Stories That Change. A version of this article first appeared on TLNT.

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