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By Anna Caraveli

Motivating employees by empowering them

How does an organization improve performance and innovation?

Before jumping to the implementation of techniques, it is important to examine the unwritten rules of thought, conduct and behavior that drive action in a company. Is culture driven by rules or people? Efficiency or innovation? The organization's expectations or employees' motivation?

An article in the June 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review cited an example of engaging employees by empowering them.

It involves an international retail company whose U.S.-based accounting team worked extremely long hours to meet demanding deadlines. A manager understood that the team was demoralized and, as a result, its productivity had declined. The solution was a new program called Control of Our Lives, or COOL, that allowed employees to take an afternoon off every two weeks. The results were transformative. Morale improved and employees stayed engaged and motivated.

Why was this solution so effective? Some may question the impact on productivity of a single afternoon off. There must be more effective solutions. What about hiring more staff? Applying lean process redesign? Providing financial incentives?

Or getting tougher? "This is what it takes to work in a competitive industry today. Take it or leave it."

This afternoon off, however, represented more than a little extra time to recharge. By allowing employees to pick an afternoon off each week, the company was giving them back a degree of control.

Studies show that it is not just the amount of work that is demoralizing but the lack of control over it. There is a difference between someone working all night on his novel because he is caught up in the creative process and can't tear himself 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 or her perception and tone of the relationship with the organization. This employee is now an actor rather than a spectator and one step more engaged in the organization.

The implications go beyond employees to all categories of relationships.

In place of that company's accountants, one might envision "tired, passive or stale" customers, or "unmotivated" or "uninspired" employees. Empowering them – enabling them to come up with a solution, customize a service, reach conclusions by learning as opposed to being told, have a voice in determining work hours or place – transforms them from consumers to co-creators and hence motivates and engages them.

Yet this is easier said than done.

Top-down, siloed organizations limit initiative through processes and procedures that prescribe behavior, curtail authority and decision-making. Bureaucracies are "wired" for products and procedures rather than people and relationships.

They are set up to ensure efficiency and order rather than stimulate innovation. As a result, they discourage employee empowerment, risk-taking, learning from results and responsibilities of a broad scope, such as carrying projects from concept to execution, across functions and disciplines.

These companies produce commoditized, off-the shelf products and services rather than craft customer solutions. Transactional, commodity-based relationships reduce customers to users, rather than develop them into stakeholders. They fail to enable actions that generate engagement and foster loyalty, such as meaningful interaction, collaboration and co-development 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 – an employee's choice of an afternoon off, for example.

The starting point, however, is the choice to motivate rather than direct, empower rather than control and engage rather than dictate as the tools for performance improvement.

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