Bankable Leadership: How to give employees control

The following is the seventh excerpt from New York Times best-selling author and executive coach Dr. Tasha Eurich’s new book Bankable Leadership.  

I have a good friend who recently had surgery to stop bleeding in his brain after he took a nasty fall. Being the highly independent person that he is, the week he spent in the hospital was absolutely miserable for him. No one likes being in the hospital, and the lack of control he felt over what was happening to him was unbearable. He couldn’t eat the foods he wanted. He wasn’t able to decide when he’d leave. He wasn’t able to get up and walk around.

With his discharge approaching, he was told he’d need regular appointments with a speech therapist. Still fairly groggy, he looked at me and said, “I don’t think I’m going to go to speech therapy.” Being far too smart not to know how important this was, I think he was exerting the last bit of control he felt he had left.

Luckily, my friend recovered quickly and completely, but there is a lesson here for managers. Regardless of their age, job type, gender, or culture, human beings want to have a feeling of control over their lives. This is especially true at work, where most employees feel that very little is under their direct control.

Researcher Muammer Ozer has found that workers who feel control over how they approach their work have better relationships with their colleagues and are more likely to help others when needed — solid evidence that giving your team more control helps on the people side of the Bankable Leadership spectrum.

And on the results side, when employees have autonomy, they perform better.

Nancy Dodd of Montana State University and Dan Ganster of Colorado State University studied the effect of autonomy on performance. The researchers asked undergraduates to complete clerical tests measuring grammar, spelling, and punctuation—to measure their baseline ability—and then gave them text and asked them to correct the errors. Told they’d be competing against others, participants were given different sets of instructions with varying levels of autonomy. The high-autonomy group could control the program, while the low-autonomy group had to ask a supervisor’s assistance at each stage. When the authors looked at the corrected text, they found that participants with high autonomy were not only more committed to the task but also performed better, providing they received feedback on how they were doing.

A friend of mine once told me that “stress is responsibility without control.”

There is scientific support for this statement: One recent study found that senior leaders (who have more control) report feeling less stress at work. Gary Sherman and his colleagues studied military and government leaders at a Harvard executive leadership development program. They collected samples of the stress hormone cortisol and asked participants to self-report their anxiety. Researchers found that leadership positions were associated with less stress, with stress decreasing the more senior a leader was! Sherman attributed this to the fact that senior leaders have more autonomy.

There are a variety of approaches Bankable Leaders can use to give their teams a greater sense of control. For example, HCL Technologies, an India-based IT company, has created a sort of help desk dedicated to improving employees’ work experience.16 At any time, anyone can create an electronic ticket if something isn’t quite right in their world. Maybe they don’t like the food served at company functions, or they aren’t happy with their manager. Tickets are routed to the person who can resolve them. Perhaps the smartest part of this approach is the fact that only the employee who submitted the ticket can close it. In other words, the employee has complete control and doesn’t have to close the ticket until he or she is satisfied.

Here are some other ideas for how to give your employees a sense of control:

  • Ask for their input on projects and work assignments.
  • Ask them what changes you could implement to make their lives easier.
  • Don’t constrain their ability to take time off when they want or need to.
  • Have them create agendas and/or run staff meetings.
  • If your company does engagement surveys, consider building a task team to own the survey.
  • Allow employees to influence the strategy of your department based on their unique knowledge.


Look for more excerpts from Bankable Leadership on CDN in the coming weeks.

Dr. Tasha Eurich is a proud leadership geek, executive coach, speaker, and author, Dr. Eurich is the author of the new book, Bankable Leadership: Happy People, Bottom Line Results, and the Power to Deliver Both.  She also helps organizations succeed by improving the effectiveness of their leaders and teams.  Dr. Eurich passionately pairs her scientific grounding in human behavior with a practical approach to solving some of today’s most common leadership challenges. Her decade-long career has spanned roles as an external consultant and a direct report to both CEOs and human resources executives. The majority of Dr. Eurich’s work has been with executives in large Fortune 500 organizations, including CH2M HILL, Xcel Energy, Western Union, IHS, Destination Hotels and Resorts, Newmont Mining, Centura Health, CoBiz Financial, the City of Cincinnati, and HCA.

With an M.S. and Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from Colorado State University and B.A.s in Theater and Psychology from Middlebury College, she serves on the faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership. She has served as an adjunct faculty member in Colorado State University’s Psychology and Business Schools. She is also a popular guest speaker at the University of Denver and Colorado State University’s Executive MBA programs.

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