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Employee Engagement Improves with Freedom to Fail

Employee engagement is quite the buzzword in today’s society. As leaders, we know it is important, but do we really understand how to engage our employees?

Do you just have an all-hands company meeting and announce that “from this day forward, we will all be more empowered!!”?  Another idea is to use employee surveys to gauge employee engagement. What are we doing with the information we have now? Do we know whether our people are engaged in their work?

Improving Employee Engagement

Begin by looking at it from your employee’s perspective. Do you talk to your employees regularly? Do you understand their challenges? And what are you indirectly saying to them through your policies and management practices. For example, how would you feel to have cameras all over the facility or be micromanaged by your boss? Additionally, would you feel more or less motivated or empowered or …trustworthy?

If we truly want employee engagement, then we, as leaders, must take real steps to remove the negatives causing them to disengage, empower them, and give them reasons to be engaged.

Responsible Freedom

As a matter of fact, the philosopher Peter Kostenbaum describes empowerment as responsible freedom:

“Taking personal responsibility for getting others to implement strategy is the leader’s key polarity. It’s the existential paradox of holding yourself 100 percent responsible for the fate of your organization, on the one hand, and assuming absolutely no responsibility for the choices made by other people, on the other hand…You cannot choose for others. All you can do is inform them that you cannot choose for them. In most cases, that in itself will be a strong motivator for the people whom you want to cultivate. The leader’s role is less to heal or to help than to enlarge the capacity for responsible freedom.”

All in all, employees want to feel they play a role in the company’s success and that their efforts are necessary and valued. The underlying fundamental concept creating fulfillment in an organization is a sense of two-way trust. It is important to realize you must allow people to have the freedom to exercise personal choice and to take responsibility for their work and the decisions they make. You must also make sure your actions and words match.

If people are just required to be compliant, employees often don’t feel personal responsibility and their full potential is buried. In addition, they often exhibit a state of indifference and suppress emotions of concern, excitement and motivation. They are cynical; believing that leadership and their peers are motivated by self-interest and distrustful of human sincerity or integrity.

Never Make the Same Mistake Twice

Think about the conflicting message your are sending if you have a motivational poster on the wall that says, 

You miss 100% off the shots you don’t take. ~Wayne Gretzky

BUT you are highly critical of people for taking shots that don’t succeed. 

What is the message? “Don’t try?”

I prefer to empower people and learn from mistakes. My saying is,

“Make mistakes. You learn more from your failures than your successes. But don’t make the same mistake twice.”

Does my organization believe it? You betcha. After we made the same mistake twice, I printed it out on a note card with the above quote and gave it to every single person in the organization. Additionally, I explained that my expectations were as follows:

  1. Identify the root cause of the failure when a mistake is made
  2. Discuss and implement ways to prevent the mistake from happening again
  3. Remember—no yelling or screaming about the error is allowed
  4. Do not hide failure, instead bring it into the
  5. light so the team can work together to flush it
  6. out of the system
  7. Create a learning organization where all ideas are welcomed and encouraged
  8. Require everyone to take responsibility for their decisions and hold them accountable
  9. Celebrate successes as a team

How do I know people took me seriously in that morning meeting? Most people keep the note card in a visible spot…their bulletin board or their door. It is a constant reminder to me and them on how we as an organization deal with mistakes.

Leadership Style Matters

It isn’t easy but transformation is possible and it is important.  Five years ago, the management style at Onex was traditional command-and-control. The leadership was autocratic and curbed freedom in the workplace by establishing a rigid hierarchy, burdensome rules, silos within the organization and oppressed people with unjust authority. This was a toxic environment to work-in with a lot of key personnel looking for another job.

Today, we practice a more democratic style of leadership. We have flattened the organizational chart.  We evaluate our processes and look to simplify them to allow for the freedom of individuality, personal judgment, innovation and creativity which increases employee engagement.

Our organization shares values and a vision for the future. This is our moral compass for staying the course. We learn and improve quickly because people have the freedom to innovate, experiment and fail within the guidelines of our values and vision. We are in the constant pursuit of perfection, continuously improving each day, working as cross-functional teams, trying to make a positive mark on the world.

In the United States Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty (freedom), and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These are not simply words from history, these principles are still valid today. People thrive, engage, and are more successful when they are given the responsibility and freedom to realize their own potential. Why, as leaders, are we still running our businesses as command-and-control dictatorships and expecting to have engaged and empowered employees?

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