A couple of years ago, my sister found out she had cancer – the same kind that took the life of Farah Fawcett. It happened about the same time, so all the media coverage on Fawcett’s death made it that much scarier for my sister. At the risk of stating the obvious, her treatment wasn’t a pleasant experience. Everyone knows about the usual stuff – hair loss, nausea, etc. But that was only half the story for her. Because of where the cancer was located she had limited control over basic bodily functions throughout the six months that she underwent her treatment.
Trying to be a helpful big brother, I told her one day that I had found some high protein drinks that would help make sure she didn’t get too weak from insufficient nutrition. When I told her, she said, “Make sure it’s not sweet.” She’s one of these rare people who didn’t get the sweet-tooth gene. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. “I know you don’t like sweet stuff, but your life is on the line. Get over it.”
She immediately shot back at me, saying that one of the worst things about her cancer was that she had no control – no control over what she did about it, no control over the treatment or the schedule for it, no control over the outcome, no control over anything. Everyone was telling her what to do, and that made her feel helpless and angry.
“Don’t tell me to get over it,” she said. “The enjoyment of food is very important to me. Some people eat to get full. I eat to savor good food, and if I can’t control anything else in my life right now, I’m not going to give up control of eating what I like, dammit. So I’ll tell you again, make sure it’s not sweet, or I won’t eat it. That’s at least one thing I can still have some control over in my life.”
Employees Without Control Can’t Take Responsibility
I was mad at myself for not being sensitive to her feelings from the beginning – partly because it relates to crucial counsel we give our clients. Her reaction speaks volumes about what fosters employee engagement – and how that ultimately affects the way a company shows up in the marketplace. Just like my sister, employees in many companies often feel powerless because they have little control over how they do their work. Unlike my sister, though, they rarely decide to take charge of a situation and go beyond explicitly what they’re told to do. They’re more intent on following directions and “doing their job” than taking responsibility for outcomes – and for good reason. Otherwise, they might lose their job – something most people aren’t willing to risk, especially in a tough economy.
When that kind of culture takes hold, the effects are predictable. Employees pass by obvious problems that need to be fixed, and say “That’s not my job.” Or they know there’s a way to make things work better, and they remain silent because “No one wants to hear my opinion.” Or a project goes bad, and everyone points their fingers at “the other guy.”
Powerless Employees Can’t Serve Customers Well
Invariably, all of that denial in the workplace makes its way outside in the marketplace. Frustrated customers can’t get their complaints resolved because customer relations employees say things like, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.” Then the company starts losing business, and who takes the heat? The answer usually depends on who is most adept at dodging accountability, which becomes a higher priority than producing a good outcome.
A typical management response is that employees have a “bad attitude.” And guess what? They’re right – but only about the behavior, not the source. They lay the blame on employees – just short of senior management’s door where it belongs. Truth is, crap really does roll downhill. If attitudes stink at the bottom, it’s usually because of what got shoveled down from the top. And if the problem is pervasive, it’s not because employees are lazy or uncaring. It’s because taking control and “breaking the rules” to do the right thing gets punished more often than rewarded.
Managers in companies like that typically live by the old bromide that if you give employees too much control, the “inmates” will wind up running the “asylum.” In the end, though, employees don’t want their organizations to operate like a free-for-all anymore than management does. For the most part, they just want enough personal control over what they do and how they do it to be able to do “the right thing” when they feel it’s in everyone’s best interest.
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