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Editorial: Give workers control for better outcomes

Give them control

July 30, 2019  By Patrick Flannery

People work better when they own their jobs.

I’m reading a book called Lost Connections by Johann Hari. It’s about depression and anxiety and explores some reasons why these problems are growing so fast in recent decades, especially in developed countries. Hari discusses a number of inter-related possibilities, but one part in particular caught my eye as being relevant to employers everywhere.

Hari references a study done of British civil servants in the 1970s. The researcher, Michael Marmot, wanted to find out who was more at risk of stress-related heart attacks: the bosses at the top, or the lower-ranking workers. The assumption going in was that the bosses would be most at risk because of the higher levels of responsibility they had.

Marmot’s study found the opposite. The lower the bureaucrats were on the 19-layer totem pole, the higher their levels of stress. Through interviews, Marmot was able to narrow this down to a more specific source. He found that those with more control over their jobs had less stress. The workload, the pay, the level of responsibility and the difficulty and complexity of their tasks seemed to matter much less than whether they had decision-making power and the freedom to structure their work and solve problems as they saw fit. Despite the fact that everyone from bosses down to typists essentially had desk jobs that involved pushing paper all day, the bosses were happier because they got to decide what they were doing and how to do it from hour to hour.


This clicked with me because so many of the labour management trends I’ve watched over the last 30 years seem to be going in exactly the opposite direction. “Lean” processes are an example. Every Lean workshop I’ve sat in calls on companies to break down their processes to essential tasks and create hyper-analyzed plans to maximize the efficiency of literally every step an employee takes throughout the day. Now, there are ways to implement this with employee input so they retain a degree of control over the process. But the end result seems to me to be a work day where the person spends most of their time robotically carrying out the same sequence of tasks. Maybe some of that is unavoidable in manufacturing operations, but I’ve seen the same thinking brought to service and office jobs. In an effort to boost efficiency, employers strip even complex government jobs down to their basic elements, distribute each element to a different worker and automate as much as they can.

My instinct runs completely counter to this and I think Hari’s insights back me up. I’m a fan of hiring competent people and holding them accountable for results. How they get those results is a lot less important. Attach incentives for contributing to higher-level goals that match your own. Give them broad powers to get involved in whatever parts of the business they need to in order to reach those goals. Maybe employees will find new ways to do their jobs, or even invent new jobs, that take your company to places you didn’t even imagine. And along the way, I bet they will be happier, more productive and stay with you longer.

Giving people responsibility. Call it a new management fad.

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