Thought leaders: Academic insights: Show staff trust and they will respond

Key points

• The amount of choice employees can exercise at work has declined in the past 25 years.

• Commitment and motivation is a two-way street between employers and their workforce.

• Discretion and trust are key components for creating enjoyable jobs and motivating staff.

A little more autonomy can boost employee motivation, says Irena Grugulis

When it comes to motivating staff, skill is the elephant in the room – the big issue that affects everyone but which no one mentions. This is particularly true of skill in the job, the amount of complexity, discretion, challenge or development that work contains, as well as how interesting a job is.

When children plan what they want to do when they grow up, they are not interested in the latest share option plan, but in the nature of the job itself, in driving fast cars, drawing pictures or becoming an astronaut, although I do know someone who wanted to work on the checkout at Tesco because she thought that you got to take the money home at the end of the day.

Later on in life, this pursuit of interesting work is all too easy to forget, but it is still important for both managers and employees. After all, do you really want to do a job you hate or hire someone to do a job who simply does not want to be there?

But according to the British Skills Survey series, the discretion employees can exercise at work, opportunities to make a choice about the way work is done and the ability to control the effort levels required have all declined dramatically over the last 25 years. For professionals, the figures are particularly stark, falling from a peak of 72% in 1986 to 38% in 2006. While every other aspect of skill is rising, as employees become more capable and more highly qualified, they are also being trusted less.

Of course, centralisation, control and monitoring have strategic advantages. They may enable organisations to reduce headcount or salaries; they provide extensive management information; and they may make outputs more homogeneous or more predictable. But this comes at a price.

So perhaps it is time to remember that making work interesting and creating the sort of jobs that people want to do is a two-way street, and that discretion and trust are key components of this. Most social skills, like commitment or motivation, are relationships rather than individual qualities and the way people are treated at work, as well as the jobs they do, affect those relationships.

For a recent research project, I spent some time with a computer games company. The people there were not the best paid in the world, but it was a good place to work for a number of reasons. There were no professional managers. Everyone, apart from the director and the part-time receptionist, was engaged in the task of creating games, animating, writing code, doing artwork, designing and testing. Specialist leads ran teams, but they were both expert in the tasks the team performed and were expected to produce work themselves. The teams were involved in dividing up work, monitoring and helping anyone with problems.

Everyone knew the deadlines, and overtime tended to be initiated by individuals rather than insisted on by management. This was unpaid, but free food was provided in the evenings and at weekends, ranging from hot meals from the local takeaways to bread rolls with various sandwich fillers. Hot and cold drinks were provided free throughout the day, with snacks available from a tuck shop table and paid for in an honesty box.

Of course, the creative industries are different to many others and attract enthusiasts and hobbyists, but many of these features, including the refreshing lack of pettiness, could be copied by any organisation. If you want trust in your organisation and skilful employees, then build it into the system.

Irena Grugulis is professor of employment studies at Durham Business†School and services fellow at the Advanced Institute of Management Research and the Economic and Social Research Council (AIM/ESRC)

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