What incites people to deliver their best performance? I have been exploring this question for some years now and I am increasingly of the view that the answer lies in empowering people. People will be most committed and motivated to the organisation when they feel their day-to-day work environment is autonomous. They need to believe they have a sense of control over their work or they may adopt what psychologist Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania termed ‘learned helplessness’, where they basically stop taking initiative.
Building a culture of trust is what will truly make a significant difference. Research indicates that people in high-trust organisations are more productive, have more energy at work, suffer less chronic stress and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. Simply put, when companies trust people to choose which projects they will work on, they focus on what they care about most and this powers greater performance.
An important caveat to remember here is that autonomy is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can fuel creativity and performance. On the other, autonomy can also lead to ambiguity and chaos. This is because the effects of empowering people are largely impacted by how people perceive their leader’s behaviour. People may perceive greater autonomy as an indication that the leader trusts them and is providing them with opportunities for growth or they may see empowerment as evidence that the leader can’t lead and is trying to avoid making difficult decisions. In the latter example, people may become frustrated about their role, leading to worse performance. It is therefore vital that when trying to empower people, the leader makes sure people are equipped effectively to perform their jobs. To make this happen, an ongoing discussion of the needs, obstacles, what is working and what is not working is of paramount importance to the development and upkeep of an autonomous working environment. Indeed, providing people real autonomy requires hard work of crafting all the incentives, practices and processes that actually empower employees to be autonomous. A good practice illustrating how to approach autonomy is the Swedish company Spotify as they have largely succeeded in maintaining an agile and autonomous mindset without sacrificing accountability.
Please send any ideas or examples you have on building an environment that empowers people. I would love to hear them!
 Monarth, H. (2014). Make your team feel powerful. Harvard Business Review
 Zak, P. (2017). The Neuroscience of trust. Harvard Business Review
 Mankins, M. & Garton, E. (2017). How Spotify balances autonomy and accountability. Harvard Business Review