Leaders typically have two primary areas of focus: engaging employees and driving toward organizational goals. Challenges arise when these two focus areas are at odds with one another. For example, according to one former Google employee, when engineers could choose which projects they worked on, people typically opted for all the new and exciting projects (for example, self-driving cars), and avoided the less exciting, but equally important ones (for example, fixing bugs). The former employee argued that this operating mechanism gave engineers a sense of entitlement -- they wanted complete control over the projects they worked on.
Research has shown that when people have a sense that they have control over their work, they are more productive and engaged. But as described by the former employee, giving employees complete freedom may negatively impact the business. So where is the line? According to social psychologist and Why We Work author Barry Schwartz, the secret is in achieving a balance between allowing for creative freedom and assigning projects.
Schwartz wrote in The New York Times that this balance can be achieved by helping employees understand the social purpose of their work. When employees know how their work will affect others, they are more willing to do even the tasks they find to be tedious. Here are three more ways to achieve this balance.
1. Recognize all employee contributions.
Often, progress on new and innovative projects are more exciting to share and celebrate. This may make it feel like incremental or maintenance projects are thankless. Find ways to recognize employees working on projects they might find less exciting. This could be as simple as saying "Thank you," and remind them how their work fits into the larger picture.
2. Highlight the creative freedom in every project.
Though you might need to assign employees to work on specific projects, identify moments within the project that they can take the lead in how they execute. One way to do this is to share the objective of a project with the employee, ("We want to decrease the number of bugs in our product") then allow him or her to identify the ways in which he or she will approach the project to achieve the goal.
3. Collaborate with employees when planning projects.
Instead of sharing a set of projects with your employees, design them together. Come together monthly or quarterly to jointly decide on your next set of goals and the projects that will get you there. When employees are part of the journey in determining what needs to be done, they will feel a sense of control over the work plan, even if they don't get to work on every exciting project within it.
While it's important for employees to have a sense of control over their projects, it's also important to meet organizational goals. There are ways to achieve both at the same time by engaging employees at the right moments and celebrating all their efforts.