Free Them to Engage Them

By Chris Ihrig

“You know, my people don’t seem to be as excited about this business as I am. The work ethic just doesn’t seem to be there anymore.” For decades I’ve heard these words, or something very similar, from executives and managers. They’re baffled as to why their teams are not more engaged in their work and they’re looking for solutions.

Most executives with whom I’ve worked have tried all the standard solutions like reorganizing the hierarchy, providing more direct supervision, imposing quotas and beefing up the policies and procedures manual. In addition, they’ve offered incentives, created contests and revised their appraisal systems.

When I ask how these strategies have worked, the reports I hear range from marginally effective to outright disaster.

Here’s the problem: all of these strategies are some variation of what Rob Lebow and I called “control-based thinking” in our book, Accountability. That is, these strategies are all based on the belief that imposing authority, offering rewards and granting partial freedom in exchange for compliant behavior will motivate people to step up their performance and engage in their work with more enthusiasm and effectiveness.

Frankly, I’ve never seen evidence that control-based thinking and strategies produce sustainable results. Sure you can get a dog’s attention by yanking on a leash attached to a choke collar. But, as soon as the dog is off the leash, it’s either back to the old habits or if it’s had enough, attacking the person who yanked the leash. Of course, people aren’t dogs, and we don’t literally leash people. But all of the control-based strategies I’ve listed above, and many more, try to control people’s behavior by using “psychological leashes.”

So I say to executives, “What I am hearing you say is that you want your team to be more fully engaged. Is that right?” “Yes!” they say. “Then, get rid of the controls and set your people free!” Most managers look at me like I’m crazy…until I explain.

There are three simple things executives and managers can do to get things moving in the right direction regarding team engagement:

  1. Have faith in people. Hire people who really want to be great (that’s the vast majority of workers) and then trust them to do great things. Be careful who you hire, but once you’ve hired them, expect great work and provide the resources for them to be successful. If you find someone within the ranks whom you and their teammates find you cannot trust, release them immediately. Letting people hang around who are untrustworthy drags the entire team down.
  2. Expect every person to be personally responsible. Allow teams to “own” (design and continuously improve) the systems within which they work; and to negotiate with their teammates for the jobs they would each like to do on the team. Allow each teammate to choose the jobs for which they have skills and passion. For those lacking skills, but who have the passion to learn, give them the opportunity to do so. For those who lack passion for their current job responsibilities, help them choose responsibilities for which they do have passion.
  3. Give people the freedom to make choices. By far, the most motivating factor in a worker’s everyday life is having the opportunity to have some control over how and when they do their work. Yes, there need to be specific deliverables defined to ensure both consistent quality and high customer-satisfaction; but once the standards have been set and expectations made clear, treat everyone like adults and give them control over their own work processes and outputs.

Doing these three things will start you on the road toward full team engagement. At Fired-Up! Culture we can help. We have the experience and the tools. Start by getting an accurate measure of your team’s engagement with the Fired-Up! Culture Index™. Call today, and get your team moving toward full engagement!