I will never forget the experiences of getting my first suit. I was 12 years old and my father took me to a department store on 18th street in New York City. I was very excited; this was the transition to feeling grown-up. A real milestone. I would have a suit like all the grown men I knew.
At the store, we headed straight downstairs to the boys’ department and I tried on several cream-colored suits (very mid-1970s Saturday Night Fever). Once we found the right one, the tailor had me stand on a box in front of a mirror. He then went to work pinning and marking for the alteration. When he finished, he stepped back, and both he and my father looked at the suit pinned on me. In the mirror, I saw my father point to the back and shoulder of the jacket and sleeve and then shake his head no. The tailor went back to work, re-pinning and re-marking. Once again, my father shook his head no. So the tailor added padding under my shoulder. Still, my father shook his head. After about 30 minutes of back-and-forth, my father finally nodded, and my cream coloured, three-piece suit with bell bottom pants went off for alteration.
For me, the experience was long and boring and not as exciting as I had anticipated. On the car ride home, I asked my father why he didn't just tell the tailor what to do (my father was a clothing manufacturer). He explained, "If I told the tailor what to do, he would have done exactly what I had requested — but then if the jacket didn't fit properly, he would have said, 'I did what you told me to do'. On the other hand, if I told him what we are trying to achieve (for the jacket to lay flat with no pulling in the back, shoulder or sleeve) he could be responsible for the outcome I described."
This lesson of trusting the skill and experience of the professional has stayed with me. In my experience, this idea of describing the outcome and letting a skilled professional determine how best to get there often results in a more committed worker, higher quality work, and a proud employee. This is also a very effective approach in getting the most out of knowledge workers. Describe the outcome you are trying to achieve, be clear on the requirements, and preserve the worker's autonomy. If the worker needs help, s/he will ask for it.
It turns out there is a scientific reason why employees are less effective when tasks are dictated. Amy Arnsten, a neuroscience professor at Yale University, studies the importance of feeling in control. Her studies can be applied to employee autonomy in managing a team. In an interview at her Yale Laboratory, Arnsten explained that when people lose their sense of control, such as when tasks are dictated to them, the brain's emotional response centre can actually cause a decrease in cognitive functioning. This perception of not being in control, whether real or imagined, would presumably lead to a drop in productivity. If a manager describes the long-term outcome he wants, rather than dictating specific actions, the employee can decide how to arrive there and preserve his perceived sense of control, cognitive function, and ultimately improve his productivity.
This neuroscience behind leadership came to a head when I was working with an aggressive start-up operation. Like many start-ups, the founder was hard charging, charismatic, and had big aspirations and a compelling offering, which afforded him early success and an expansion in operations. In preparation for the expansion, the founder told his team that they needed to win more business. In turn, the team started accepting all types of requests from new and existing customers and ultimately overburdened the operation with a volume and types of requests they could not fulfil. Some team members were starting to get frustrated if a customer they had personally said ‘yes’ to didn't get their request fulfilled. When this happened, other team members did not understand the issue — they had been told to win more business and they were delivering on what was asked of them.
What the leader failed to realise is that he was working with skilled and experienced professionals. The team did not need to be told what to do, but merely shown the organisation's direction. To resolve this issue, the team jointly developed a mission and vision statement that identified what requests were in scope and which were not. By showing the team the purpose of the organisation, they were then able to effectively execute the expansion of the operation, resulting in increased volumes, satisfied customers and stronger financial performance.
The knee-jerk reaction of many managers to a performance challenge is to ‘tighten the screws’ and get involved in how and when a task is done. Both practical experience and now scientific evidence tell us that often a better approach is to protect the autonomy of the worker and provide high level direction.
Jordan Cohen is a knowledge worker productivity expert at PA Consulting Group
He is the recipient of the 2010 Grand Prize at the Management Innovation eXchange (The MIX) for his previous work as creator and Head of pfizerWorks at Pfizer Inc.
To view the article online in HBR, click here.
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