Many companies seek to empower their employees to achieve gains in productivity, especially for those in customer-facing roles. Common tools include increased decision-making authority, autonomy, and discretion for task-related behaviors: they share the common theme of removing structure or barriers to “unleash” employee motivation.
Without the appropriate scaffolding, however, many of these improvements can reveal shaky foundations rather than allow the company to build upwards.
As structure is removed, companies need to make sure that elements are in place to continue supporting employee performance, things like culture, recognition, and aligned incentives. Supported by these foundational elements that reinforce desired behaviors, empowerment can become an effective strategy in improving performance across the board.
But in their absence?
Take this recent post from the Harvard Business Review, for example. It tells the story of a sales organization that ran an experiment in employee empowerment. The sales team made a request of its management team to remove some of the reporting burdens, arguing that although the data was useful, it ultimately took time away from their selling and was hurting productivity. Management agreed to the request, piloting some streamlined changes in a few areas of the company.
The results from that experiment were perhaps novel for that company’s leadership, but should not have been entirely unexpected: productivity only increased among the sales people that were already performing at high levels. For everyone else, it either remained unchanged or actually decreased. The results revealed that the sales team was poorly equipped in terms of the mental models and behaviors that contribute to successful selling, and more reliant on the data from the reporting than perhaps they believed themselves to be.
In other words, they lacked the support of an effective culture, as well as incentives that could guide them towards developing high-performance thinking and behaviors needed in a more dynamic and less structured environment.
Here’s how a combination of culture and incentives might have helped.
Research tends to support a combination of culture facets that contribute to organizational effectiveness. These include an emphasis on employee development and cooperation, a consistent set of values and coordination, and a mindset of adaptability and flexibility. These facets are united by a strong sense of mission to provide the evaluative criteria against which performance is monitored.
Effective incentive strategies ensure that employee behavior is effectively aligned to these facets, developing capacity across the organization. There are a number of approaches that can be successful. A balanced rewards portfolio that captures the important dimensions of these facets. Or a social recognition program that encourages each employee to embody the values and culture of the organization, and recognize others who do so as well. Or even some combination of the above.
Imagine if the sales team from the story above had been recognized and incentivized all along, to adopt behaviors that demonstrate successful selling and prospecting. Removing the reporting burdens against this backdrop could very well have improved effectiveness on a much wider scale, given the depth of investment in both culture and recognition across the sales team itself.
Does your organization empower you? If so, what helps you to be as effective as you can be?
As Globoforce’s Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting, Derek Irvine is an internationally minded management professional with over 20 years of experience helping global companies set a higher ambition for global strategic employee recognition, leading workshops, strategy meetings and industry sessions around the world. He is the co-author of "The Power of Thanks" and his articles on fostering and managing a culture of appreciation through strategic recognition have been published in Businessweek, Workspan and HR Management. Derek splits his time between Dublin and Boston. Follow Derek on Twitter at @DerekIrvine.