In a previous post, I talked about three psychological needs that affect people’s well-being at work. Feeling competent, feeling autonomous, and feeling related to others. I ended by asking you, the reader, to answer three questions to diagnose possible sources of ill-being at your job, and by saying that this was the key to changing your well-being at work.
However, it is important to acknowledge that we can’t always change our work lives. Organizations and managers often hold the key to employees’ well-being. The same things have also been shown to lead to higher performance. There’s been a lot of research looking at managerial behaviors that engage employees. This is what these managers do.
First, if you want employees to feel competent in their work, make sure you select them properly, and then make sure they are properly introduced to policies and procedures to ensure they know how to be effective in their work. Then, you need to provide an adequate level of challenge. If a job is too easy, it gets boring very quickly. If a job is too challenging, people may get too stressed and give up. An optimal level of challenge is one that is above but not too far from current skill levels so people can stretch their skills.
It is also important to provide feedback on performance. If the feedback is negative (that is, telling them they are not reaching performance levels), make sure it is constructive, that is, it indicates how to change behavior to reach performance levels. If the feedback is positive, make sure to give it! The biggest mistake managers make when someone performs well is not saying anything. It’s also important to be specific when giving feedback. What was the behavior that was positive or negative and what impact did it have? When training managers, I often advise them to prepare feedback using a formula around “when you do [X], it [state what is good or bad about it]”.
Second, if you want employees to feel autonomous, it is important to give reasons why things need to be done in a certain way. Autonomy doesn’t mean to do whatever you want. In a workplace, some things need to get done and sometimes things need to be done in certain ways for good reasons. You want employees to understand and accept that.
Take safety behaviors for example. You need employees to use a piece of equipment in a certain way. But they could get work done faster by using equipment differently, even though it increases the risk of injury. How can you convince them? First, acknowledge how they feel: “I know you may be annoyed to use the equipment in this way because you feel it slows your work down,...” Second, explain why it’s important to do it: “...but using it the way you are could provoke an accident [in such and such a way] and this could put at risk the health, livelihood, or even the life of someone else or yourself”. Third, reiterate the directive in a clear and non-negotiable way but emphasizing again that it is for benevolent reasons: “This is why we require that this equipment is used in this way, because we care about everyone’s safety”.
You can also promote autonomy by giving people a bit of choice around some aspects of their work when it is feasible to do so, for example, by giving them flexible schedules, a choice of tasks or task ordering, and a choice of work methods. Finally, you can include them when making some decisions, especially those that affect their work directly. Participation involves giving them access to information that is used to make decisions and asking them to process this information to come to a decision that makes sense in light of their work. They are more likely to understand what goes into decisions and more likely to accept them.
Third, if you want employees to feel related to others at work, make sure people have the chance to interact in meaningful ways through team work, regular meetings (but they need to be useful!) and some social events like family picnics. Try to create a cooperative culture as opposed to a competitive culture. Finally, managers should spend time listening and questioning employees. Try to see things from their perspective to understand employee reactions to workplace events and decisions.
When managers provide the information and resources it takes to do a challenging and stimulating job, listen to employees when making decisions, and promote a cooperative climate, employees are more likely be motivated through meaning and interest, the type of motivation I demonstrated to be most conducive to high performance in a previous post.
Gillet, N., Gagné, M, Sauvagère, S., & Fouquereau, E. (2013). The role of supervisor autonomy support, organizational support, and autonomous and controlled motivation in predicting employees’ satisfaction and turnover intentions. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 22, 450–460.
Van den Broeck, A., Ferris, D. L., Chang, C.-H., & Rosen, C. C. (2016). A review of self-determination theory’s basic psychological needs at work. Journal of Management, 42, 1195–1229.