With the start of the new year and the inevitable flurry of new year resolutions it seems like a good time to reflect on what enables us to the be the best we can be. I have read endless blogs in the last couple of weeks telling me how to make sure I achieve my goals in 2017, but their focus has typically been on what I can do to help myself. That’s great, but I do think there is another question worth asking.
What should organisations be doing to make sure staff can be the best they can be?
The short answer is ‘lots of things’, and I could choose to highlight any number of theories here – Martin Seligman’s PERMA, the Action for Happiness GREAT DREAM and Kim Cameron’s theory of positive leadership are all great references for organisations looking to focus on the things that will help individuals to thrive.
But in reflecting on the role organisations play in supporting staff, one approach I am drawn to time and again is Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory. A long-standing theory of motivation, with much research and complexity behind it, I am only going to scratch the surface here. But basically, Self-Determination Theory posits that to flourish we need three key psychological needs to be met:
Autonomy – the need to feel in control
Competence – the need to feel able
Relatedness – the need to connect with others
It’s interesting to think about what organisations, and more specifically leaders and managers, can be doing to provide a working environment that enables these needs to be met.
To take each one in turn:
It is essential, for feelings of self-worth, for all staff to have things that are clearly defined as their responsibility – tasks they are allowed to take ownership of. This isn’t necessarily as straightforward as it sounds. How often have you felt let down when you’ve put a lot of work into something only for it to be taken away and finished off for you? Or how about the times when it’s not quite clear who is responsible for what and you all muddle through? Or perhaps you have been a manager watching someone struggle and so you’ve stepped into help and ended up doing it yourself? Roles need to be clearly defined, and managers need to have well developed coaching and mentoring skills, for individuals to be able to take ownership and fully contribute.
Providing people with a sense of control, in large part, comes down to communication and managing expectations. Stephen Covey talks about being clear about your circle of influence – knowing what you can control, what you can influence and what is out of your range. This is a valuable concept for leaders to remember and to share with staff. Being clear on what you can influence and where you should focus your energies can have a real impact on how satisfied you feel and how much you think you are achieving.
Too much of the time, lack of motivation comes down to people feeling like they don’t and can’t make a difference. However, the reality is in any organisation, everyone will (or should) be contributing to the bigger picture: Without all of the small cogs, the big wheel won’t turn. Leaders who frequently connect individual job roles to the bigger purpose of the organisation go a long way to helping people to understand what they influence and control.
To flourish, individuals need to be working in an environment where they feel competent and able. Frequent negative feedback and regular failure typically leaves people feeling demotivated and helpless. Research is now showing us that rather than trying to motivate people by pointing out their weaknesses and areas for improvement, we’re likely to be a lot more successful if we build on what is working. If you focus on what someone already does well they start from a position of confidence and competence; this means they are far more likely to be engaged and motivated. That is not to say that people should be left unchallenged in roles they find easy, they should be supported to stretch themselves, but in an environment that is respectful of their skills and attributes, whilst also accepting of mistakes. For me, this is about making sure that people regularly get high quality, detailed positive feedback on their strengths. It’s also about sharing successes and learning from things that go well. By shifting the focus, even just a little, away from mistakes and problems, towards success and competence, we can have a significant impact on individuals’ ability to flourish.
Time and again connecting with others is highlighted as a fundamental human need. The Gallup Institute has found that having a best friend at work is a key predictor of employee engagement and performance. Physical environments that encourage social interaction, whether over coffee, lunch or just by walking around the office, go a long way to promoting connections. Beyond that, the tone that leaders set and the encouragement they give has a clear influence over how others behave and the strength of workplace connections. It is important for leaders to show an interest in their teams and to take time to build personal connections with them. It’s also important for leaders to encourage teamwork, to promote sharing and learning from each other and to minimise working in silos. Strengthening relationships within and between teams not only increases the likelihood of individuals flourishing it will almost certainly have a positive impact on team and organisational performance.
So, back to my original question – how can organisations enable individuals to flourish? I think, as a start, managers and leaders would do well to look for practical ways to encourage a working environment that gives individuals autonomy, a sense of competence and the opportunity to build strong relationships. That might involve organising work tasks or the physical working environment in a particular way, but in the main, I think it is what a manager or leader says and does which has the biggest impact on whether employees flourish.