ACHRNEWS

Another Factory Worker: Case for Empowerment

August 3, 2009

One of the true benefits of my occasional role as a career counselor to those who have recently been laid off is that I get a chance to “produce” the story of their lives. Résumé production is about taking the accomplishments of one’s life and creating a concise, readable narrative that provides interviewers and prospective employers with a glimpse into the individual’s best work and how it might contribute to the employers’ goals. It is very challenging but rewarding work.

In a recent workshop for newly displaced workers, I asked participants to introduce themselves to the group and tell us what they had been doing most recently for their now ex-employer immediately before they were laid off. One woman, obviously reluctant to embrace her new identity as the primary marketer of her skills and talents, introduced herself with the sentiment that she was “just another factory worker.” Like others in the room, she simply was not yet to the point of understanding that she had made unique contributions to her past employer. She couldn’t yet believe that a new employer would be excited when they decided to employ her full-time in her new role.

RECOGNIZING THE TALENTS

The importance of this woman’s story is not in how it starts, but in the transformation she made just a few hours later when she began to draft her résumé. Looking to identify her accomplishments, she wondered aloud if an employer would be interested in her achievements as president of her town’s youth soccer league.

In that role, she had managed an annual tournament that attracted participating teams from a number of surrounding states. She had arranged meals and housing for over 300 visiting athletes. This “just another factory worker” had performed for a number of years as the senior executive for an organization that delivered a much-desired service, relying solely on volunteer help, her persuasion skills, and limited resources. Her intellectual energy and social skills, which were most likely underutilized at work, were in full engagement outside of it.

Whenever I hear such a story, I often wonder how such a worker’s previous employer missed out on such a talented person. What could the employer have done during the many years of this woman’s prior employment that could have encouraged her to display some of the personal talents that she had bestowed freely within her community to enhancing the profitability and productivity of the company she worked for? What are the techniques that managers can use to encourage workers to “bring out their best” and create added value in the workplace?

The first lesson to be learned from this story is that, just like a community, the workplace is filled with opportunities for greater employee involvement. The motivation to succeed in any endeavor is tremendously powered by the decision to become involved, to choose how one will contribute. This woman chose to become involved with the local soccer league, but I expect the garden club, town government, local churches, and other volunteer organizations would also have benefited greatly from her involvement.

The key is that in her community she chose how she would participate and where. Hence, this woman’s manager would have been well served by ensuring that she knew how many ways her employee could contribute to improving the workplace. Some like to tinker with machinery, others with work processes, some with better ways to team, and others with different communication strategies. Having the ability to choose creates the sustainable motivation to overcome obstacles in one’s path and to succeed.

ENGAGING QUESTIONS

Here is a sequence of questions that a manager can ask his/her employee to engage their energies in improving their workplace.

What are your suggestions or ideas for improving how we work around here? This question is non-specific and open-ended, asking the employee for their ideas. And contrary to the advice of one of my old CEOs, you do not want to ask for your employees’ good ideas. You want any and all ideas. As you begin to assess whether it is feasible to implement an idea, you may begin to decide that some ideas are more useful or more practical than others. Asking only for good ideas guarantees that everyone will engage in more idea evaluation than they will in idea generation. At the beginning, it is the freedom to brainstorm that really matters.

How would we do that? Move the employee from responsibility for idea generation to implementation by asking the how question. How can we make this happen? For many ideas, you want and need a shared commitment to successful implementation. Why? Because you get more of a participatory approach to action than just accepting the employee’s idea as is.

How would you do that? Some ideas are implementable by the employee himself/herself or with the participation of co-workers. Do employees have the knowledge, resources, and confidence to implement the solution on their own?

What resources do we need? The manager is often in the position to access resources, whether they be physical, budgetary, or time, that employees often do not know are available. This question keeps the employee from giving up too easily on idea implementation because “they won’t let me.”

Is there a way to get this done with the resources we have? Ask the employee this question to stretch his/her perception of the possibility of getting things done without incurring additional expense. Other resources may be needed, but considering other ways of getting things done helps to build commitment to the strategy or action that is ultimately chosen.

What is your first step in getting this done? Many ideas are never implemented because we never take the time for true action planning. Specifying a step-by-step method for getting an idea implemented provides both an impetus for starting action and a roadmap for evaluating progress toward the goal.

How can I help? or What help do you need from me? As managers, we often forget the power of our attention to things that matter to our employees. An effective way of showing our interest is to ask how we can help and then commit to providing that help. Often, the only thing that an employee about to embark on an improvement project needs is the assurance that we are always available for consultation in case of difficulty.

A final question one should ask as a manager is what are the rewards for employees to do something different than their usual duties? Our factory worker/soccer league president received thanks for her efforts, accolades for a successful tournament, and knowledge that she helped her community’s youth, including her children, to have a fun, challenging activity.

LISTING REWARDS

Rewards are dependent both upon the activities accomplished and the individual being rewarded. Consider the following rewards for employees for successful implementation of a change project:

• More money, in salary or bonus;

• Flexible time off;

• Less supervision in the form of close oversight of the person’s tasks;

• More supervisory involvement, generally in the form of greater coaching;

• Greater job security;

• Better working conditions;

• Increase in benefits.

In summary, to get the most out of your employees, imagine that they are more than “just factory workers,” but are truly productive, creative contributors in all aspects of their lives. How do you go about getting them to make more of those contributions at work? Ask them.

Publication date: 08/03/2009