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The key to an engaged workforce is to ask, not tell

Susanne Jacobs

Have you ever been micromanaged? Has every move you made been scrutinised? Each step directed so as to remove any need for you to think for yourself? Contributor Susanne Jacobs, author – Drivers, (Panoma Press).

How do you feel when someone tells you to do something versus asks you what you think or if you’ll be okay to do whatever task was needed? Worse still, do they dictate that you act as directed from a supposed position of power that only serves to undermine your self-esteem. A command approach does have its place of course. An officer who perceives his patrol are in danger shouldn’t ask their opinion as to whether they should ‘get down’ but should instead demand it. But, in most situations at work, where lives are not in jeopardy, we need to employ an inclusive approach to decision making and provide a sense of autonomy and choice for those involved.

When we are asked for our opinion, and perceive that we have choice in how to approach our work, we engage. Choice and autonomy are key neurobiological drivers of trust and intrinsic motivation[1]. Too many well-intentioned changes and projects fail because people feel controlled. When we perceive that we ‘have to’, the brain interprets a punishment and we look to resist, avoid and even sabotage in our effort to defend. This response, to threats to our autonomy, is termed by psychologists as ‘reactance’.

The neural mechanisms underlying the way we assess the consequences of choices differ depending on whether we are told what to do or are able to exercise our own volition[2]. A meta-analysis, involving over 22,000 participants, showed that by adding the phrase ‘but you are free to accept or refuse’ doubled the likelihood of people saying yes to charitable donations and filling in voluntary surveys[3].  Workplaces are not prisons which are intentionally set up to punish through the removal of choice, they are environments where every individual can remain autonomous whether that be how they approach work or whether they choose to stay or leave. After all, people come to work to do a good job and if we have recruited well we should want to ask for their ideas rather than try to control and limit them. The more rules put in place and the more people are told what to do, in the aim to mitigate risk of potential adverse behaviour, the less we are able to access their creativity.

In the workplace providing an environment of perceived choice and autonomy is a necessary function for high performing teams.  When autonomously functioning, people are more deeply engaged and productive. Think about a recent change at work, or in fact any change. How often did you hear, or you may you have used words along the lines of ‘They told us’ or ‘It’s come from above…’, and variations on a theme? Who ‘they’ are is immaterial, although it can be assumed to be at an undefined leadership level, but it’s what’s behind the words that tells the real story. What’s really being said is closer to; ‘I’ve been told…I’ve not been asked….I’ve not been given a choice’.  You may at this point be saying that it’s not always possible to give choice and hand over control, particularly during change and I’d agree to a certain extent. But, there is always room for asking for ideas and to hear the opinions of those that are affected.

The more one tries to control by telling others rather than asking, the more threat is placed into the system.  The more performance is reduced of those being bossed, the more the boss perceives they need to boss, and so starts the vicious cycle and a command and control culture is born. Asking not telling pays dividends.

[1] DRIVERS, Creating Trust and Motivation at Work. Susanne Jacobs. Panoma Press 2017

[2] Interactions between decision making and performance monitoring within prefrontal cortex; Mark E Walton1,2, Joseph T Devlin1,2 & Matthew F S Rushworth, ; Nature Neuroscience 7, 1259 – 1265 (2004) Published online: 24 October 2004 | doi:10.1038/nn1339

[3] A Meta-Analysis of the Effectiveness of the ‘But You Are Free’ Compliance Gaining Technique; DOI:10.1080/10510974.2012.727941, Christopher J. Carpenter, pages 6-17