As humans, we have a deep fear of powerlessness. Finding yourself in a bad situation and having no power to change it is one of life’s most psychologically disruptive experiences. Maybe that’s why we love stories of the underdog, whether David versus Goliath or Frodo and the ring — we want to believe that with enough effort and dedication even the smallest person can become powerful.
However, a majority of people don’t feel powerful in the workplace. Gallup research shows that 70% of American workers aren’t engaged or committed to their employers and it’s estimated that apathy costs the U.S. economy $450 to $550 billion a year in lost productivity. If you’re concerned that your business follows this trend, then empowering your employees might be the answer.
Encouraging autonomy in the workplace allows employees to pursue their particular values in their work, which is a powerful motivator. It increases employee’s feelings of wellbeing and happiness and grants them a greater stake in the company, increasing engagement and productivity.
Now, in case you’re worried, I’m not suggesting that you hand over the reins of leadership altogether. What’s more, that’s not what your employees want. Professionals recognise the value of clear leadership chains, but they require a meaningful place in the process.
Consider, for example, the way that democracy works. When you stop and think about it, it’s pretty strange that we all hand over huge amounts of power and control to leaders we have never met. By and large, however, we’re happy to give them that authority as long as we retain our share of power: the capacity to vote in accordance with our values and be listened to. While we all love to complain about politicians, when governments respect the role of the people things do run pretty smoothly. On the other hand, when governments break promises or exclude certain people from the decision-making process, the feeling of powerlessness causes public disengagement, which weakens the whole system.
As a leader, it’s not enough simply to grant nominally increased autonomy to employees. They need to feel autonomous and embrace their power. The University of Illinois found that official empowerment programs, driven by managers, were seen as a sort of “ticking the box” exercise and didn’t work.
Instead, give even the least powerful employers the ability to make day-to-day decisions about their work and they will become more committed to achieving both personal and company goals. The secret to getting employees to embrace their power is this: When people are trusted, they become eager to show that they deserve the trust. When an employee’s autonomy is respected, she wants to return that respect by performing to a high standard.
I know that this is a leap of faith for managers. To ensure success you need to maintain clear communication, to give everyone the opportunity to learn from mistakes and to offer recognition of successes. Often the most difficult step of all is learning to welcome honest feedback and criticism from your employees.
However, overcoming employee disengagement is one of the greatest things you can achieve as a manager and you won’t regret it.
Till next time,