Why giving employees the freedom of choice is so powerful

Since the Industrial Revolution, the role of the manager has been to control. For decades, this approach was relatively successful. But this style of leadership is no longer working. Today’s biggest business problems are people challenges: How do we motivate people? How do we increase productivity? How do we get people to innovate? How do we engage people? As Einstein once said, you can’t solve the world’s problems by using the same thinking that got you there in the first place. So what would happen if managers gave up control?

In his book Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg makes a powerful case for giving people the power of choice:

The instinct for control is so central to how our brains develop,” Duhigg explains, “that infants, once they learn to feed themselves, will resist adults’ attempts at control even if submission is more likely to get food into their mouths.

This is because of a concept called internal locus of control.

What is internal locus of control?

If you have an internal locus of control, you believe you are in control of your own life. However, if you have an external locus of control, you believe your life is controlled by factors beyond your influence — other people, the environment, fate. According to a team of psychologists writing in the journal Problems and Perspectives in Management in 2012:

Internal locus of control has been linked with academic success, higher self-motivation and social maturity, lower incidences of stress and depression, and longer life span.

This has all sorts of implications for the business world. For example, research has shown that praising someone for hard work (rather than achievement) activates the internal locus of control which in turn creates stronger self-motivation and better performance. But how often in workplaces do we do actually this?

Charles C. Krulak used research on internal locus of control to redesign the 13-week bootcamp used to train the United States Marine Corps. One task recruits are given as part of their training is to clean the mess hall. Sounds simple, right? But they are given no instructions whatsoever. It’s chaos, of course — they can’t find the right equipment, it takes them ages, and they don’t do a particularly good job. But when they finish, drill instructor Sergeant Dennis Joy will praise people for doing things that are hard because “that’s how they learn to believe they can do them.” So if one recruit is particularly shy, Sergeant Joy will praise him for the leadership skills he demonstrated in delegating tasks. Recruits are also trained to ask “why” when something is exceptionally difficult or miserable in order to remind them of the purpose of what they are doing.

As a result of Krulak’s changes to the bootcamp, the Corps’ retention of new recruits and the performance scores of new marines have both increased by more than 20 percent. Here’s Duhigg:

“If you give people an opportunity to feel a sense of control and practice making choices, they can learn to exert willpower. Once people know how to make self-directed choices into a habit, motivation becomes more automatic.
Moreover, to teach ourselves to self-motivate more easily, we need to learn to see our choices not just as expressions of control, but also as affirmations of our values and goals. That’s the reason recruits ask each other “why” — because it shows them how to link small tasks to larger aspirations.”

So in summary, the choices that are the most powerful in generating motivation do two things:

  1. Convince us we’re in control
  2. Endow our actions with larger meaning

The comfort of control

I was having a conversation with a team of managers recently who had decided to offer a generous reward to employees and were debating what criteria they should consider for awarding it. Should it be names in a hat? Or performance-related metrics? I said, “What if you gave the responsibility of choosing to the team?” Whenever I pose this question to managers, I’ve noticed two things happen. The first is: silence. And then someone always asks tentatively, “But what if they choose something stupid?”

Why do managers have this fear? Why is it so unusual to give employees the power to generate solutions? Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, who wrote The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures, believe it’s for two reasons:

1. Many leaders, no matter their level, don’t realise how smart their organisation as a whole is and can be

2. They and those below them haven’t learned how to liberate and tap their organisation’s collective intelligence and creativity

Old school methods like suggestion boxes and brainstorming sessions are ineffective. Most managers tell me they’ve tried crowdsourcing solutions in the past and either nothing happened or the solutions were infeasible which reinforces their belief that they as managers know best. In reality, these failed attempts can’t be blamed on lack of intelligence or creativity but on the process itself. Just as Charles C. Krulak trains recruits in the Marine Corps to activate their internal locus of control, we need to create the right organisational habits that do the same.

How to tap into the wisdom of employees in an organisation

  1. Give employees full control— as Charles Duhigg said, the choices most powerful for generating motivation convince us we’re in control. Most managers are frustrated that when they give employees the opportunity to be involved in something, they don’t seem particularly motivated. Why? Because they know they don’t really have any say in the outcome — it’s the illusion of control. Make it clear that they alone are responsible for the outcome. So if they’re proposing ideas, let them choose the final solution and let them implement it.
  2. Give employees the responsibility for measuring the success of the outcome — endow people’s actions with meaning. This way, if they do come up with something ‘stupid’, they’ll learn why it’s stupid for themselves and be able to improve it. (In my experience though, employees don’t come up with something stupid, they come up with something brilliant.) Of course as a manager if you have useful experience or expertise, employees can still ask you for coaching or advice — so long as they have the power to choose whether they listen to you or not! The moment you interfere — however well-intentioned — you destroy their internal locus of control.
  3. Give employees the tools they need to be successful —give employees access to all the information they need to come up with a sound proposal. This might be finance figures or performance data. As well as information, employees will need to practice new skills. Managers and employees alike are not used to tapping into collective intelligence so they need to develop this as a habit. Liberating Structures are a collection of 33 different tools that help you do precisely this. Even using the simple ‘1–2–4-all’ discussion tool will make a big difference to productive meetings. Whatever tools or practices you choose, create a safe space and allow people the time to develop these skills — it won’t happen overnight.

Offering employees the power of choice isn’t about being nice or creating the illusion of being a great place to work. The simple truth is: it gets better results. The world today is far too complex for centralised control. Businesses need to be able to tap into the intelligence and creativity of their people — fast — in order to survive.

If you’re still not convinced, consider this example from Chuck Blakeman, author of Why Employees Are Always a Bad Idea:

Let’s say management designs what they feel is the perfect process for packing pickles, and then tells you exactly how you will do every step. It increases your pickle-packing by 20 percent— it works better! Therefore, it must be okay for management to foist it on you. But how do you feel about the process? Do you own it? Will you try to improve on it, or just run it as is? The documentation is fully formalised and completed by management, and they are set on doing it exactly that way. You are just a cog in the system.

But what if leaders instead said to the pickle-packers, “We want to increase production by 20 percent; figure it out yourselves. We’ll even cut you in on the increased revenues”? We did that in the 1980s with a pickle factory — production went up 50 to 80 percent per person, not 20 percent. The people packing the pickles owned the whole process with pride, and were constantly thinking about how they could continue to improve it, which they did.

The moral of the story? Imposing a process that works better doesn’t justify imposing it. It’s still top-down, you leave out most of the brains that would be better at improving it, and you ruin any future opportunity to get people involved in improving the system because they know it’s not theirs, it belongs to management.

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Founder of Reimaginaire, trainer and coach with Tuff Leadership Training, host of Leadermorphosis podcast.

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Lisa Gill

Lisa Gill

Founder of Reimaginaire, trainer and coach with Tuff Leadership Training, host of Leadermorphosis podcast.