How to Transform Employee Compliance Into Engagement

Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen employee engagement hover around 30 percent. To put that in perspective, 7 out of 10 workers are disengaged in their work.

This is a huge problem! More specifically, it’s a huge technological problem. It’s a technological problem in that we’re using the wrong technology to get people engaged.

Compliance vs. Engagement

Of the three enduring motivators that drive employee engagement — autonomy, mastery, and purpose — autonomy is the key to cracking this technological problem.

To understand autonomy we have to understand one word in particular: MANAGEMENT.

We take this word too seriously.

We think management is something that’s always been around, right? We think it emanated from nature or was given to us by God… but it’s not.

When we take the concept of management off its pedestal, we can see it for what it is: a technology for organising people into productive capacities.

The thing is, this technology is from the 1850s, and we don’t use too many 19th Century technologies anymore, do we? We’ve upgraded most of them.

Even though the technology of management is still one of the greatest technologies humankind has ever invented, it’s a technology with a singular purpose — compliance.

Management is designed to get people to do what you want them to do, the way you want them to do it.

It may sound evil, but the truth is we still need compliance in our organisations. But more and more we need engagement, and 3 engaged employees out of 10 just isn’t working anymore.

If you really want engagement, rather than compliance, you’ve got to use a different technology — the technology of self-direction.

Self-direction is how human beings engage. This is true for me, you, and everyone we know.

To use the power of self-direction, you need to look for ways to give people greater amounts of autonomy over the various aspects of their job. Specifically, you need to give them autonomy over their:

  • Time — when they do what they do
  • Task — what they actually do
  • Team — who they do it with
  • Technique — how they actually do it

When people have more sovereignty over these aspects of their work, they do a better job because that’s how human beings engage.

I understand if you’re skeptical of this. I find a lot of managers are, and that’s totally normal. But, if you asked someone to describe the best boss they ever had, very rarely will you hear this response:

“The best boss I ever had was amazing! She breathed down my neck the whole time I was working for her. She told me exactly what to do and precisely how to do it! She was unbelievably (almost pathologically) controlling, and as a consequence, I was utterly compliant. It was the best working relationship of my life.”

Over the past several years, we’ve asked people to describe the best boss they’ve ever had, and we invariably hear this these two themes: high standards and autonomy.

That’s how people engage.

Autonomy In The Real World

Here are some examples of companies using autonomy to dramatically boost engagement.

Zappos (Online Shoe Retailer)

Typically, working at a call centre is considered a terrible job.

In fact, the average annual turnover rate in American call centres is almost 100 percent.

People are tethered to a headset and computer and when a call comes in, the goal is to follow a script and dispatch the caller as quickly as possible. These calls are almost always timed, monitored, and recorded.

Zappos decided to run their call centres a little differently.

Once they hired people, they gave them a few a weeks of training. Then they gave them full-sized desks instead of the tiny cubicle stations that most call centres use. Then they told them when a call comes in, they had one job: to solve the customer’s problem.

That’s it.

They said, “Just solve the customer’s problem, and do it your way. We won’t time, monitor, or record your calls. We will, however, be maniacal about getting feedback from our customers. More than anything else, we want to make sure our customers are happy.”

This caused Zappos to earn one of the highest customer service ratings of any company in any industry in North America. Their customer service ratings rivaled those of the Four Seasons Hotel Chain.

This is an online shoe company in Nevada! How did they do it?

They started with a different premise. If you start with the premise that people are lazy and can’t be trusted, you go down a path most of us are familiar with. If you start with the opposite premise — that people want to do good work and contribute — it leads you down another path. It’s not only nicer, but it’s demonstratively more effective.

Atlassian (Australian Software Company)

Once a quarter on Thursday afternoons, Atlassian tells their software developers, “For the next 24 hours go work on anything you want… as long as it’s not part of your regular job. Do whatever you want, however you want, with whoever you want. The only thing we ask is that you show what you create to the rest of the company the next day, on Friday afternoon.”

This one day of intense, undiluted autonomy has led a whole array of fixes for existing software, ideas for new products, and improvements to internal processes that would have otherwise never emerged.

This goes back to something Joseph Grenny said:

“Accountability is the fruit.”

This isn’t an if-then reward-based motivator that says, “Hey if you do something really good here at Atlassian I’ll give you a carrot!”

Instead, the idea is, “We hire good people. Good people want to do good things. One way to help good people do good things is to get out of their way for a day.”

Accountability is the fruit of autonomy.

Overcome Resistance to Autonomy

When you talk about this idea that autonomy results in engagement, you’ll inevitably hear others respond with sentences that begin with these two words: SOME PEOPLE.

“Some people just aren’t motivated.”

“Some people just can’t handle autonomy.”

“Some people actually want to be controlled.”

This is an incredibly inaccurate depiction of who human beings are.

First, I’ve never heard anyone say any of those about themselves. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I can’t handle autonomy. I need to be controlled.”

Second — and I think this goes to the heart of what VitalSmarts is all about — being passive and inert is not the human condition.

I’m a father of three kids and they’ve shown me we are not wired to be passive and inert. If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to bring me a two-year-old who isn’t active and engaged.

You won’t be able to find one.

Being active and engaged is who we are as human beings. That’s the ‘default setting when the product ships from the factory’.

If someone isn’t motivated or acts in ways that are passive and inert, I’m convinced it’s because of learned behaviour. That’s not who they really are.

Instead, it’s the legacy of organisations and schools that use the wrong technology.

My challenge to you is to think of the people in your workplace as grown-up versions of those kids that inherently active and engaged. If we start from that premise, I believe we can grow our economy, build organisations that work, and enable everyone around us to live up to their god-given potential.


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