Engagement Insights: Empowering

An article in the June issue of HBR cites an interesting example of engaging employees by empowering them. Even though she has in mind increased productivity, the same principle applies to  all relationships--not only with employees but also with customers and other stakeholders. 

The example she cites is of an international retail company where its US-based accounting team “typically worked very long hours at the end of each month to meet financial-reporting deadlines."  The manager was concerned about the plummeting morale and the resulting drop in productivity. He decided to step in and reverse the course before it took a  bigger toll on both employees and company.  "The result was a program called Control of Our Lives, or COOL, which allowed workers to schedule one afternoon away from work during every two-week period.”

“What does an afternoon off have to do with productivity?” you may ask. The link seems to be random and arbitrary. What about hiring more staff or applying lean process re-design or give incentives, such as promotions or overtime pay or even just tell them to tough it out because this is what it takes to work in a competitive industry today.  Take it or leave it. 

By allowing employees to pick an afternoon off each week, however, the company was giving them back a degree of control. Studies routinely show that it is not just the amount of work that is demoralizing but the lack of control over it. There is a big difference between working all night on your novel because you are caught up in the creative process  and simply can’t tear yourself away, and having to work late into the night to meet others’ deadlines and standards.  Even a modicum of control over one’s time is a powerful motivator and can change his/her perception and tone of the relationship with the organization. This employee is now an actor rather than spectator and, hence, one step more engaged in the organization.

“Since the program began,” the author reports, “employee engagement scores have risen sharply. Just as important, the team has cut the time spent compiling end-of-the-month reports from four days to two and a half days. ‘My team is now more productive, engaged, and collaborative than ever,’ the team manager says—and he reports that other managers have noticed the change.”  She concludes: “to help workers manage their time, we should stop telling individuals to change themselves and start empowering them to act together to change the way they work. Small steps can make a big difference.”

Now, in place of  that company's accountants,  put "tired, passive or stale members" and "unmotivated or uninspired employees." Empowering them to come up with a solution, customize a service; draw conclusions by learning vs. being told; have a voice in determining work hours or place is probably the most effective path to motivating and engaging.  Yet this is easier said than done.  

Bureaucratic organizations limit autonomy through elaborate processes and procedures and are not set up to empower employees to come up with strategic solutions, make decisions and carry a project from concept to execution.

I found in my study that the same problem extends to members or customers. Products, services and even communications tend to be “off-the-shelf” and allow little customization and collaboration between service provider and company.

The good news is that to shift from command-and-control to co-development and from passivity to engagement can be achieved through very small steps, as the case in HBR shows, as long as you are headed in the right direction: empowerment and collaboration rather than persuasion, control or appeasement.


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