Here's the central law of employee motivation, of coaxing a great performance from your employees, day after day: Employees who are selected, oriented, and reinforced properly, and who are surrounded by peers of the same caliber, will thrive when given significant autonomy. Otherwise, they'll wither.

There are dozens of studies to support this, inside and outside of business life.

The case for autonomy: just look in the mirror.

The case for giving employees autonomy (you may prefer the word "empowerment") in how to carry out their work has been backed up for half a century by psychological and management research. It may surprise you just how strong the case is -- until you look in the mirror and think about what you would require to do great work face-to- face with customers every day.

First off, people need a reason to wake up in the morning -- and ''they pay me'' is hardly the ideal alarm clock. Think about it this way: Let's assume an employer pays approximately the same wage as competing employers do. But the employer also prescribes exactly how the job should be done, when it should be done, and where it should be done. Does this employer's approximately-the-same-as-everyone-else's wage really carry the day in this situation?

Unlikely. An employee with half a brain (and, by and large, that's the minimum cranial content to look for in an employee) will sprint to any employer offering more freedom. That freedom includes:

Flexibility in when the job gets done (don't tell me that parents who need to work an unconventional schedule are lesser workers; it just ain't true).

Even more important, flexibility in how the job gets done: both on a day-to-day basis and in having a part in designing the overall structure of the work activities. This is an ethical imperative. If you don't involve people in designing the jobs to which they devote their waking hours, you're using employees as mere tools for their labor. Even though you're paying them, this kind of using of people is unconscionable.

It's impossible to micromanage 5,000 customer touch points.

A company needs the ability to respond to the unpredictable, ever changing, intensely individual, nuanced desires of customers.

Consider this statistic from Cornell's Center for Hospitality Research: There are an estimated five thousand customer/employee touch points every day in a moderate-size hotel. There may be fewer touch points in your business, or, heaven help you, there may be more. To handle each of those touch points correctly requires an exceeding amount of psychological and intellectual flexibility, which will be hindered when employees know that management puts primary value on conformity.

Don't talk about empowerment, only to reward conformity.

While many companies speak of employee empowerment, they tend to compensate and allocate pats on the back differently:

Did an employee make the numbers this month (even if he had to finesse the books by pushing bad events to next month)?

Did he get everything -- sorta -- shipped on time (even if it means he didn't take that extra minute to verify a shipping address and save the customer a lot of grief )?

Did the employee get customers off the phone in the call center "on time" (even though lingering longer could have led to a greater bond with the company)?

You want customer relations to be on the shoulders of your employees. But as long as you're defining every little thing, and rewarding/punishing based on seemingly arbitrary criteria, you won't get them to carry out that responsibility.

Their viewpoint will soon resemble the jaded flight attendant's attitude on a big, legacy carrier who told me not long ago, "The more emphatically management comes up with new i's to dot and t's for me to cross, the less seriously I take them. I know these rules will be gone within the year, and a new group of regs will take their place."

Published on: Jul 21, 2015
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