It seems like all companies are racing to increase salaries and benefits to attract employees. What is missed among all the frustration is that money isn’t a strong motivator for employees. This is especially true in knowledge work, where taking someone from $150,000/year to $175,000 isn’t significant.
Instead, people crave other non-monetary benefits. Where and how they work is the one everyone is discussing right now. Working from home a few days a week and maintaining a flexible schedule turned out to be huge wins during the pandemic. Another benefit is autonomy at work. Few people want to be micro-managed, and yet, executives constantly find themselves as micro-managers.
How do you get your team to make their own decisions and have more autonomy in their work? In this post, I want to share a few ideas from the second book, Bulletproof Decisions: How Executives Can Get It Right, Every Time (out in early 2022).
Idea #1: Establish a culture that accepts mistakes
Making mistakes isn’t usually fatal — especially outside of specific fields like medicine. Mistakes can become deadly if there isn’t a proper understanding of what happened and if the error isn’t caught early enough. Look at your company’s culture and determine how comfortable your team is talking about mistakes. In highly mistake-avoidance cultures, people won’t make any decision to avoid the blame that might follow. They instead let someone else (an executive or the boss) make the final decisions.
To lead a culture change, you need to embody the ideas. It’s not enough to tell people to feel ok making mistakes. Set up meetings where your team can discuss candidly what worked and what went wrong. Give out an award for the most innovative idea that didn’t work. Give public praise for the right effort despite the outcome. Show trust by letting others run with their ideas even if you don’t think that is the right approach. Cultures reflect their leaders, and you can be the catalyst for change.
Idea #2: Teach or coach others how to decide
Coaching or teaching can be highly effective for decision-making. Whether you’re teaching my 3 Os framework or another framework, give people tools for understanding how they make decisions. Good coaching is trying to bring out the best in a person, which applies to decision-making. This is also why it’s helpful to be able to explain your decision-making process. Of course, people will want to emulate you, but it will be harder if your decision-making process is a black box.
Idea #3: Set up operating constraints wide enough for action
In business, there’s quite a bit of talk around empowering individuals. One of the best examples of a company doing this right is Marriot. They famously allowed their employees to make any decision under $500. If a guest had an issue that could be resolved for less than 500 bucks, the employee could do it—no need for a manager’s approval or deciding on the chain. In your work, you can establish similar operating constraints. Your team could make their own decisions within specific parts of your work, particular customers, or something else.
The key here is to make the constraints wide enough to be actionable. If Marriot told employees they had up to $50 to solve issues, they wouldn’t get very far. At most, they might be able to give free meals or drinks, which many hotels do. Operating constraints can also be expanded over time as trust is built. You can work out the kinks and issues with smaller constraints and less risk.
Idea #4: Give yourself margins
One common pushback against letting others make their own decisions is that it will take too long. Executives tell me all the time that they don’t have the time to wait until one of their team members figures this out. I’m not talking about someone who doesn’t have the skills to make a decision. You can’t expect a junior marketing person to make decisions at the level of a director. I am talking about someone who can make decisions but can’t because of a perceived lack of time.
Just like you can provide broad operating constraints for your team, you can also give yourself wide margins. If you know that you would like to launch a campaign or product by a specific date, give yourself (and your team) a buffer to allow for some errors in decisions. I worked with a client who was always rushing to the next thing. He, as the CEO, made all the decisions because no one else could do it at the speed he was moving. As a result, he got things done but at the expense of his teams’ growth.
Learning to let go is scary but crucial for growth (and mental wellbeing). Don’t default to salary increases when other things can provide more satisfaction to your team. It’s easier to give more money than to let someone make a mistake. The latter is more valuable over time.