Research in the fields of social, positive, and industrial/organizational psychology has repeatedly found that employees thrive best in work environments that allow them to think for themselves, and to construct and implement decisions for one course of action or another based on their own thinking and volition. The research is also clear that we suffer when we feel overly constrained, controlled, or coerced in our effort to produce high quality and high volumes of work.
The Power of Autonomy
In complementary terms used in the Optimal Motivation program, when we experience high quality autonomy at work (as well as relatedness and competence), we are more likely to be more creative, more positively energetic (as opposed to relying on stress energy) and more easily focused on accomplishing any task or goal, no matter how short-term, tactical, and mundane—or long-term, strategic, and magnificent. While leaders repeatedly report they want such creativity and focus from employees, employees repeatedly report how difficult leaders often make it for employees to feel those things.
For example, during a recent keynote presentation, several frustrated participants offered detailed examples of policies, procedures, and both overt and tacit cultural rules that make it difficult for them to feel free, creative, and positively energetic as persistently as the work demands. Nonetheless, a traditional leader response to such frustration is to tell the employees to stop complaining and adjust in some way so they feel less frustrated. Of course, by all means let’s all learn how to source our own sense of autonomy no matter what we are faced with. As if on cue in that conversation, one participant made precisely that a point by citing Viktor Frankl’s experience in a concentration camp as evidence of the kind of transcendence that is possible even in the most extreme environments. It’s a story to live by, to be sure.
Leaders Stepping Up
But, I think we also should be talking about the extent to which managers and executives actively step up to the challenges of changing policies and procedures—and organizational systems—that foment such frustration. Too many executives take a “deal with it” stance, rather than a stance of “let’s look into how we can modify or change this so you don’t have to spend so much mental and emotional energy coping with it like that anymore.”
Willing executives could see such a response as adding moral substance to their leadership, since it would shift from focusing only on what the executives want from employees (to just deal with it and get on with the work) to focusing more on what they want for their employees (a work environment that makes it easy for employees to autonomously commit themselves to meaningful, high quality, and high volume work.)
Leader, Would You Like to Shift?
Blanchard research shows that employees generally respond positively to this leadership upgrade with greater intentions to work at above average levels, to endorse the organization, and to stay with the organization longer. So, with such employee and organizational advantages, managers and executives, what have you got to lose?
About the author:
The Motivation Guy (also known as Dr. David Facer) is one of the principal authors—together with Susan Fowler and Drea Zigarmi—of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ new Optimal Motivation process and workshop. Their posts appear on the first and third Monday of each month.