Boost Employee Performance by Relaxing Authority

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Once when I was a systems analyst for a large, national firm, I worked in the Seattle office while reporting to a manager, Brad, who was in the San Francisco office. He had an annoying habit of calling me on my office phone almost every Friday afternoon around 5pm. He never said it but I knew he was checking to make sure I was still working and hadn’t left early. He had strict policies about such things as work hours, no telecommuting, and detailed status reports. One time he actually came into town for the weekend without telling me and showed up at my office at 5:05pm on Friday to see if I was there. I found his style irritating.

Then I started reporting to a different VP, Darrin, in the same San Francisco office. At first, I kept to the same policies of strict office hours and detailed status reports. But the first time I let him know I’d have to be out of the office in the middle of the day, he quickly told me he wasn’t concerned about keeping such close tabs on me. He said he trusted me to get the work done and that’s all he cared about.

Which manager got my best performance? It was by far Darrin. Why? I’m a professional and always motivated to do my best in any circumstance. But I was happier working for Darrin because his style resonated with me. He trusted me to do the right thing without imposing unnecessary rules and monitoring tactics. Being trusted made me feel more emotionally positive.  Science has now proven that when we feel emotionally uplifted, it improves our cognition and creativity. Our minds become far more sharp and clear, we’re better able to see possibilities, our memory recall is improved, and we’re better able to mentally analyze large amounts of data. All of these factors significantly improved my performance as a systems analyst.

We hear a lot about the Millenial generation not wanting to be told what to do, but the fact is that employees of all generations are becoming less tolerant of authority.  We all want autonomy in the workplace. The good news for businesses is that relaxing unnecessary authoritative practices will actually boost the performance of an organization. The emotional positivity that trust generates is much more effective than authoritative tactics.

I find it odd that so many employee engagement surveys measure the trust that employees have in their leaders, but they don’t typically assess the level of trust that employees feel from their leaders. This is a key measure of employee engagement and contributes greatly to performance.

If you need to get greater performance and agility from the group you’re leading, think about how you can reduce the rules and restrictions and put more trust in your people. As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a writer, speaker and consultant helping organizations strengthen agility and performance by shaping emotional energy. She is a thought leader bringing to light the new science of group emotional energy and connecting it to business performance. She has had a 28-year award winning career as a C-level Fortune 500 executive and Big Four consulting firm professional.
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  1. Tom Pellicane  August 27, 2012

    Good article. There’s one line that in my opinion gets to the heart of the matter between the to managers. You wrote, “He said he trusted me to get the work done and that’s all he cared about.” In my experience trust is the key for any leader, most important trust in their own abilities. It sounds like Brad didn’t trust his own ability as a leader to instill the proper performance ethic in his staff which resulting in insecurity followed by control issues.

    In a work relationship I think its very important to build a deep trust with clear expectations of how its earned and how its lost. Once that’s in place I’ve found people generally perform well above expectations and reward you for entrusting them.

  2. David Marquet  September 2, 2012

    Great leaders GIVE control. They don’t take control. They create leaders not followers.
    Read this:

  3. Ben Simonton  September 2, 2012


    As usual, a good article. I have a comment about autonomy. Every person has five basic needs and one of them is autonomy. Millenials are more vocal about not having it, but no one can be motivated without autonomy. So previous generations might not object as loudly, but they respond to having it just as positively if not more so than millenials do.

    The extent to which management meets those five needs dictates the performance level of employees. Stephen Covey wrote in his book “Principle-Centered Leadership” that the possible performance gain is 500% and I agree with that. It is noteworthy that Covey remarked that after visiting David’s ship “never before had I observed such empowerment”.

  4. Dharmesh Mashru  September 10, 2012

    Yes. A very important and delicate subject matter presented in simple way. This applies to parenting also. More freedom you give to your children they behave in more responsible manner. I many a times give a parallel that is crude. Comparison between pat dogs and street dogs. Who are more responsible? In my observation street dogs who have to get their own food, shelter and who are accountable for their actions – good or bad – if they barked at some innocent animal without a cause the other animal will give it back and there is no one to protect them – same way if they did something good to other animal for example a human being they got a feed and possible shelter in corner of their garden. Whereas the pat dogs will not exhibit such responsibilities.

    However, in case of organizational set up, there are many other factors to be considered before deciding the level of control an individual or a group requires. If every employee was trustworthy then we would not be hearing any scams, controls, internal audits etc.

    Basically the people concerned have to be ready for it. Or rather have to be made ready by series of careful HR practices to ensure employee engagement, self esteem, loyalty which will ensure that the freedom is not misused and misunderstood.

  5. Merooj Aghazarian  September 10, 2012

    Unfortunately, managers are graduating from a school of thought, that reminds them from school time to university, that “You have a mortgage”, just focus on your job and start the race to the top, just look upwards, and follow the process that you are getting paid for and be nice to your boss. No thinking required.

  6. Patrick Fuss  September 10, 2012

    having the freedom to perform is far more liberating than having to follow the rules – nice one Jackie

  7. Roger Forsen  September 10, 2012

    I truly believe you are correct. There is a paradigm shift ongoing that will take some time since the steering groups of the past are now beeing replaced. We will have another type of management in 5 years already from now I think.

  8. Gabriela Shearer  September 11, 2012

    Is very important to realize that although the basic needs are still there for employees, what motivates people and how they connect with the success is very different today. Pretty often we hear about empowering employees, and it have to start with trust and give them responsibilities.
    It is amazing that we develop processes to such high levels but many organizations are stuck in an old structure. Performance reviews should be based on the results and not the amount of hours you put in, quality not quantity.
    I once worked for a manager like Darrin. He was the best manager I ever had. Why? I am pretty good on having high demands on myself but having his trust that I will be accountable with very little control, meant a lot. I have never worked so hard and felt so good about my job! I took that experience to my heart and try to be that kind of leader myself, to trust my people.


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