This was originally posted on td.org in February 2018.
Which scenario sounds like a more enjoyable day at work?
Option A: “Construction on our new conference rooms is finished, and the management team has decided to name them Room A, Room B, and Room C. Please schedule meetings accordingly.”
Option B: “Construction on our new conference rooms is finished, and we want your help in naming them! Email us with suggestions today, and once we’ve chosen a theme, we’ll take a company-wide vote on the official names later this week.”
There’s no question: Option A is a mandate, while Option B is an invitation. A few years ago, the employees at AllenComm were in this exact situation, and when management opened up the conference room naming process to submissions and voting, the outcome was a memorable week of brainstorming, pitching, voting, and finally a series of conference room windows emblazoned with everyone’s favorite fonts. Today, employees there go to meetings in rooms named Garamond, Avenir, Baskerville, and Futura, and the event has gone down in company history as a bright spot of company-wide engagement and authenticity.
While this may seem like nothing more than a fun little anecdote, the story contains an important thread of employee engagement truth that weaves its way through best practices in management and talent development alike:
Agency Improves Employee Engagement
Giving people more choices and listening to their authentic voices at work could be the key to turning around negative attitudes and stale routines. When employees know they have decision-making power—over their own work, schedules, and factors that affect their work community—they are much more likely to produce good work and support a positive company culture. Read on to discover a few of the simple but transformative benefits of increasing employee agency in the workplace.
Break Bad Habits
In the first century CE, Roman philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus lectured his students about bad habits of the mind, saying,
“So in the majority of other things, we address circumstances not in accordance with the right assumptions, but mostly by following wretched habit.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures, 6.25.5-11)
Unfortunately, many modern workplaces harbor some truly egregious habits related to productivity and innovation. When employees do their work in a certain way just because that’s the way things have always been done, inefficiencies pile up like a logjam in a river. However, moving away from the “way we’ve always done it” mentality by giving employees greater agency in their projects and planning will break the cycle of complacency, releasing a flood of innovation and engagement that will foster a more productive and enjoyable work environment.
Boost Creativity (and Retention)
Your company is full of people with different strengths, interests, and skills, but do these unique individuals have the chance to creatively apply their abilities to their work? Low-agency work cultures that value conformity over individuality consistently lead to lower job satisfaction among employees, which correlates with lower quality work and higher turnover. Will Yakowicz, a journalist and podcaster for Inc., explains it this way:
Conformity is highly detrimental to the creative, innovative minds who want to build and invent—the very type of people you want at your company. It results in an organization where no one wants to rock the boat, or pose tough questions about how the company accomplishes its goals.
If this sounds like your company, let go of rigid roles and foster a culture where people are allowed to express what makes them unique. Make your company a place where you trust your employees to speak their minds and achieve company goals their own way using their strongest talents and passions.
Entrusting your people with more creative freedom will open the door to a healthier, more productive culture where employees will experience higher levels of job satisfaction, fulfillment, and retention.
Start Small and Think Big
Every workplace is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for increasing agency in an organizational culture. However, a little bit of freedom goes a long way, and even small steps toward more talent-driven work practices can reveal an untapped wealth of employee engagement, creativity, productivity, and satisfaction.
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