Engaging Employees, Out of Freedom Comes Love

August 6, 2010

I’ve posted before about the best leadership style for managers, specifically looking at whether a “lead from the front” approach is most effective or a “get out of the way and leave it to the people who know best” approach yields dividends. I wanted to  look a bit deeper at why modern industrial psychological thought tends towards the latter approach – why is it that autonomized employees yield bigger dividends than autocratized ones?

Recently there was a post on HBR that included a lovely little anecdote that goes some way towards explaining this tendency. To summarize, the author was leading a visitor on a tour of his beverage can plant in Golden, Co. During the tour, the visitor commented on an employee who seemed to take pleasure in performing a seemingly menial task (in this case laying components onto a pallet for shipping). The visitor was mesmerized and commented:

Watch that guy. He lays those sleeves down like eggshells, then steps back to admire his work. Then, if he is happy, he gives the pallet a couple of love taps before he releases it for storage. How do you create employee engagement like that?

In a situation that is akin to the metaphor of “not seeing the forest for the trees” the author of the post asked his factory manager just what created the level of pride, engagement, and love that the particular employee seemed to display. The manager’s response was telling:

All good people want to change their lives for the better. When people work here, their lives change for the better. When people know we’ve had a lot to do with changing their lives for the better, they make sure our corporate life changes for the better as well. We add to that by letting the employee know no one is better at sleeving ends than he is. He is the best, and every day he lives up to our expectations. Multiply this by everyone in the plant, and you end up with a superior plant that can sell itself — even better than you can.

Such a simple answer, and yet so impactful on the way we think as employees and managers. We tend to have a perception that it’s only those involved in organization strategy, in high level direction, and in momentous tasks who feel a sense of worth. Given this perception, we’re eternally trying to simulate this feeling in downstream workers.

If we extrapolate the example of the beverage can worker out to other organizations, however, it’s easy to see that our fundamental approach is flawed. Why try and simulate engagement, passion, and satisfaction, when our workers are able to gain those same feelings genuinely through the work they do if we only let them.

Think of this in a customer service setting. Rather than giving call center staff highly controlled and scripted content for them to repeat to customers, what if we only gave them the freedom to use their own creativity within customer interactions? Perhaps we’d see the sort of creative and engaged flourishes displayed by that factory worker back in Colorado.

Clearly there are limits to this autonomy and some controls are needed, but I’d contend that the risks in over-controlling customer service staff are greater than those faced by giving them autonomy. So here’s a challenge and an experiment: try giving some of your customer service staff more autonomy, see what it does to their level of engagement and pride. You may well be pleasantly surprised.