Culture, culture, culture. We hear the term ad nauseam from managers, yet very little is done to actually build a valuable workplace atmosphere. Simply telling people what to do or how to feel is no longer good enough - was it ever - resulting in high turnover and low morale. Especially in aviation, this problem separates well-running organizations from the antiquated past.
It is no wonder turnover has never been higher. Other factors are certainly at play, such as opportunities for advancement and a financial incentive for growing into leadership positions. However, there is often a notion that people’s low morale is their problem - I have even heard senior managers claim, “If they don’t like it, they can leave.”
Unfortunately, we can do little to control these insufficient and reckless managers other than call their bluff and actually leave. But, as leaders, there is much we can do to improve what we do control. You are at the forefront of a team, and your responsibility is to maximize their value to themselves and the organization.
There are many things humans commonly appreciate, all of which are considered when deciding where to work. This milestone decision is a personal investment, which factors into productivity in work. Financial investments can go awry; the same can be said about personal investments. The symptoms of a poor personal investment are disengagement, a lack of productivity, and contagiously low morale. Once someone decides they want to leave, psychology tells us there is little we can do to win them back.
When we get it wrong, we pay the consequences. Understanding human nature and how we are wired is the first step in building a culture in which people will want to be a part. Take, for example, a study performed by Harvard Business Review polling employees on their opinion of remote work.
The renowned magazine surveyed 5,000 knowledge-based workers worldwide about their preferences for an ideal future workplace. 59% of respondents prioritized “flexibility” over tangible aspects, like salary or benefits. Further, 77% said they would prefer to work for a company that allows them to decide when working from home is appropriate versus office work.
“Mandates feel like a violation of autonomy, which is one of the most important intrinsic drivers of threat and reward in the brain.”
Another 59% of employees said they would not prefer to work for a company that requires them to come into a physical office five days a week. So, while flexibility is important to them, it is conditional upon their autonomy to exercise their decisions.
This is not an argument for remote work. In fact, in our industry, finding remote work is particularly challenging. While our friends and family worked from home during the height of the pandemic, many of us were still on the frontlines in a physical office. The point is that human nature tells us we prefer more autonomy, and our productivity reflects just that.
Like everything else, there needs to be balance. Two extreme factors are at play - employees cannot do whatever they want, but we must also not overcontrol. Employees will only further place their foot outside the door by excessively compromising an individual’s autonomy with minutiae and granular tasks.
In 1985, two American psychologists, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, collaborated on a theory that challenged the notion that reward is the primary motivating factor in human decision-making. Their self-determination theory asserted that “that intrinsic human motivation — that is, one’s autonomous motivation for personal, psychological growth — is the foundational catalyst of human success and fulfillment.”
Self-determination is made up of three components:
Autonomy - the desire to be the causal agent in one’s life.
Competence - the experience of mastery and being effective in one’s activity.
Relatedness - the need to feel connected and a sense of belongingness with others.
This theory does not render other factors, such as salary and benefits, inconsequential. Obviously, these variables must be competitively balanced. I have asked this question: do you believe humans are intrinsically good? Simply, are you a high-trust or low-trust manager? If you are a low-trust manager, others aren’t the problem - it is you.
When employees are provided the leeway to act autonomously, managers can expect “a greater degree of satisfaction, fulfillment, and engagement at work.” Further, it will provide continuous motivation to maximize performance and continue to grow. Before you know it, you are building a culture of leaders.
Determining the acceptable range of autonomy depends on what works for the organization. Surely everyone cannot be remote for flight departments with remote flight controller positions. There needs to be interconnectivity, so where is the line? Well, this is for you to decide. It depends on what works best for you and your organization - the key word being “work.”
Studies show many unknowledgeable managers hesitate to survey employees due to perceived unfair biases, or they may simply fear the results. But, you must believe humans are wired to be intrinsically good - the population of employees that do not act accordingly will be negligible in the final results.
For example, Google is a company that is notoriously enjoyable to work for. Part of their infectious culture is ongoing Upward Feedback Surveys, which are built to keep managers accountable for their level of competency. However, the People Innovation Lab (PiLab), which "researches making life better inside and out of Google," aimed to determine how impactful biases may be in obtaining feedback data.
For example, the PiLab felt that employees might vent their frustrations on managers in surveys. Theoretically, an employee handed a poor annual review may take out their revenge when the ball is put in their court. Lead by Mary Kate Stimmler, the PiLab calculated the exact impact these biases play. To quote a previous post:
“Stimmler calculated that, under a 41-point rating scale, a change in employees’ performance ratings of plus or minus 0.1 was correlated with a change in a manager’s UFS rating by 0.03 on a scale of 0 to 100. In non-math terminology, this indicates that people will tend to do the right thing. ”
Principles, Not Policies
Providing freedom does not always need to be directly related to work functions. Everyone behaves differently, and constructing an environment conducive to maximizing performance for varying personalities is important for nudging performance.
Nudging is an important theory for many reasons, and I will not expound too much to save material for later. The basic idea is that our environment should “nudge” us toward productive behavior. For example, take a supermarket layout. The walls and corners of stores are the only places to find healthier foods, while junk foods are easily accessible in the middle. Thus, we are nudged toward being unhealthy.
I am the type of person that functions better when listening to white noise or something productive. As a result, I prefer to work out of my vehicle instead of the busy office a couple of times a day, balancing two very different environments. We should consider our habits and provide similar autonomy to employees while realizing we do not know what works best for someone better than themselves.
The more granular policies become, the less autonomy we provide other human beings, and the negative effects will trickle down. By providing the context of “why,” employees will hold principles with the same, if not more, weight. Instead, we might find that policies are more favorable, giving employees a framework they are expected to adhere to while allowing flexibility to adapt to changes and get the job done the way they prefer.
Providing an end goal without explicit instructions on how to achieve it does wonders for building the next leaders of our organizations. By figuring out for themselves what works best and following the policies they are provided, these workers will commonly exceed expectations in productivity and encourage others to hold the same standard.
This is singularly the most important benefit of decentralized command. One of my favorite public figures, Jocko Willink, does not hesitate to point out that when employees understand the “why,” they will police these policies themselves. When a team buys in, the leader is allowed more capacity to deal with bigger problems and the long-term future. If you find yourself as a manager who feels they are wasting too much energy on particulate behaviors, odds are you are leading a controlling organization that is not functioning.
So, now it's time to get introspective. I have asked you in the past to identify the type of organization you work for - now it is time to ask yourself what kind of manager you are. There are always things we can do better, and in our leadership positions, time spent investing in ourselves is time spent investing in others.