How empowering your workforce encourages autonomy and wellbeing
In a previous article, we considered the first of 6 key areas of work that need to be managed well to promote health and wellbeing in the workplace – Demands and the Importance of Managing the Demands on Employees.
In this piece, I want to focus on the second area – Control, and how learning to ‘let go’ a little can actually lead to improved outcomes for you and your business.
What is autonomy in the workplace?
There is a lot of debate surrounding the concept of autonomy in the workplace. In its simplest form, autonomy is about giving employees a sense of control over their work. This could manifest itself in different ways, such as allowing employees to choose their own working hours, or giving them more control over how they complete their tasks.
Giving employees more autonomy has been shown to offer many benefits, including increased job satisfaction, engagement and motivation. In fact, a study by the University of Birmingham Business School into workplace culture found that employees with higher levels of autonomy in their work reported positive effects on their overall well-being and higher levels of job satisfaction.
Giving employees more control
As business owners and managers, we like to be in control – it’s human nature. We want things to happen in a certain way and we often feel that we are the only ones who can make them happen. But when it comes to our employees, how much control do we really need to have over them and what are the consequences of us trying to hold on to it too tightly? Not just for your employees’ wellbeing but the success of your business.
The HSE standard is that “employees indicate that they are able to have a say about the way they do their work; and systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns” so the question is, how can you achieve this?
Giving employees autonomy over how they do their work, including when and where, is the primary goal here, but naturally for some managers, this can be a daunting prospect. Giving up control can seem scary, but it is important to realise that great leadership is not about directing and controlling others, but rather supporting people to find their own way.
Autonomy starts with developing leaders
A philosopher once said “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, people will say ‘we did it ourselves’.”
Sure, things could go wrong, especially if it’s not clear to employees what is expected of them, or if adequate support is not provided, but if you want to create a high-performing, engaged workforce then this is the way to do it.
That’s why growing autonomy in your organisation starts with developing the leaders beyond mere management. Perhaps one of the most important, but underutilised skills is that of explicitness; the ability to define in unambiguous terms, exactly what is required in terms of performance. In order for people to successfully manage their own workloads, the desired result must be clear.
In addition to clear objectives, it is equally important that frequent, meaningful feedback is delivered. It is vital that performance issues are addressed quickly, but remember, for every piece of negative feedback you give, at least 5 positive pieces of feedback should be given. It is critical to catch people doing things well and avoid feeding them the dreaded and glaringly transparent “shit sandwich”.
The “Shit Sandwich”
Giving negative feedback is never easy, but it’s especially difficult when you have to deliver it in a way that doesn’t crush the recipient’s spirit. The “shit sandwich” is an outdated and overused method of doing just that. Sadly it is still one of the most popular -and useless- ways to give feedback amongst managers, although few may admit it.
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this type of critique, you’ll understand why the “shit sandwich” is so-called. It involves sandwiching negative feedback between two slices of positive feedback with the misguided belief that it’ll be easier for employees to stomach. For example, “You did a great job on that presentation, but you need to be more concise next time. And your analysis was spot-on.”
Sure, the “glass half full” types who favour this technique will no doubt prefer to brand it as a “praise sandwich”, “compliment sandwich” or more commonly, the “feedback sandwich” to make it more palatable. But the fact is, it’s still the same recipe for disaster.
The problem with the “criticism sandwich” is that it doesn’t work. Not only is it ineffective at delivering the desired message but any positive comments are often completely disregarded or taken with a grain of salt, as the recipients are so busy trying to digest the negative in the middle.
A better way to deliver negative feedback is to be direct, honest and specific. Tell the person exactly what they did wrong and why it was a problem. Then be explicit about what you expect.
For example, “You handed in the month-end report late. This made it difficult for me to present the full picture at the board meeting and it’s impacted decision-making. Next month please prioritise the report so that you meet the deadline”.
The key is to avoid making the person feel attacked or defensive where they’re likely to shut down and tune you out. Keep the focus on their behaviour, not on them as a person and make sure you follow up with more positive feedback when they do something well.
This approach is far more effective and it’s time managers finally flushed the “shit sandwich” method. Employees will thank you for it.
This is where something like Liberating Leadership® offers great insights into how to better communicate with and motivate employees. Rather than relying on outdated techniques, it develops the characteristics of positive regard and genuineness which, along with high expectations and reinforcement of positive behaviours, creates an environment of high performance.
The Liberating Leadership® programme moves leaders from inconsistent approaches to consistent, effective leadership, that develops and empowers people.
Create a safe space to share ideas
Providing opportunities for people to share their ideas, particularly during the early stages of project planning, is a great way to help people feel they have a say in how things are done. They feel more invested in the outcome and are more likely to ensure its success.
It is also important that you create an environment where people feel comfortable challenging the status quo. If you want people to innovate and come up with new ideas, they need to feel safe doing so.
Be open-minded and recognise that your people may have a better way to do things. Encourage people to participate in decision making, empower people to make decisions about the way they carry out their work and don’t be tempted to monitor their every move.
David Green, the author of The Age of Wellbeing, said “Organisations of the future will be more trusting of employees and other categories of workers.” he continues “all obstacles to autonomy, competence, and relatedness, will be removed. Rather than feeling drained and controlled, workers will feel energised and trusted”.
Encourage personal development
Another area where you can give your employees control is with their training. Rather than directing them towards training that matches the typical company career path, or what best serves the organisation’s current needs, allow them to determine their own development.
Talk to them about how they would like to see their role develop within the organisation and give them a say in what training they would like to complete to help achieve their goals. This is a great way of holding on to good people, as well as empowering them to take their career in the direction they want it to go.
8 simple steps organisations can take to give employees more control
1. Allow them to decide when to take their breaks – studies have shown that employees who have control over their breaks are more productive
2. Be flexible around their start and finish times – this can help employees who use public transport and take advantage of their more productive hours
3. Be flexible around family needs such as school drop-off/pick-up times – this can be a huge help for working parents and make them feel more valued
4. Ask people how else they would like to utilise their skills – this can open up new opportunities for employees to develop their skills and knowledge
5. Offer choices for training and development – this will show employees that you are willing to invest in their development and value their contribution
6. Allow them to arrange/decorate their workspace – this sounds like an obvious one but this can help people feel more comfortable and productive in their work environment
7. Find ways to give employees a voice – this could be something as simple as an anonymous suggestion box, arranging focus groups or even an online Live Chat
8. Encourage people to use their skills and initiative to carry out their work – this will help people to feel more engaged in their work and empowered to make decisions.
Why is autonomy in the workplace important?
Research has shown that higher levels of job autonomy are important for the psychological wellbeing of employees and interestingly, this was shown to be especially true for those who start out with low levels of self-government. There is evidence that being able to exercise control may be critical for an individual to thrive and reduce stress in the workplace.
Allowing people to control how they carry out their work lets them know they are trusted and valued and develops greater responsibility. It is important to believe in your employees as expectations theory tells us that if we have high expectations we will get better performance, but if we have low expectations, we tend to get poor results. It’s a classic case of “you get what you give”.
Autonomy in the workplace empowers employees
Of course, for some roles, entire autonomy may not be possible, and in these circumstances giving employees choice in how they carry out their roles, can create a sense of control.
Empowering your workforce and giving them more control over how they work can only lead to a more engaged, productive and happier workforce. Consider your own working practices, what obstacles to autonomy do your employees face and how could this be hindering your business?
If you would like help to create a more autonomous workforce, please get in touch with Fiona at More Than Motivation. As a member of the International Stress Management Association and holder of a CPCAB accredited Level 5 Diploma in Mental Health & Wellbeing Awareness, I can help develop a wellbeing strategy and deliver the Liberating Leadership programme that will help leaders create a high support culture and an environment of high performance.