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Most of us learned the principles of leadership through theory generated out of the Industrial Revolution.  Authors such as Frederick W. Taylor whose book The Principles of Scientific Management became a cornerstone of leadership theories and helped to define the characteristics of a leader that many of us hold true today.  Taylor and other leadership thought leaders taught us that people are innately lazy or unfocused in their work and that we as leaders need to implement systems and processes that ensure work flows at the correct level of productivity.  Their focus was on accountability and oversight rather than flexibility and ownership.  As the world around us has evolved and our values have changed, we have yet to evolve past these principles in the vast majority of corporations. 

There are, however, many new companies and leaders finding innovative ways to keep their employees productivity high through employee empowerment and engagement rather than through dictatorial styles of management.  This is becoming a key characteristic of leadership in the 21st century.

A New View on Employee Motivation and Management

A recent success story comes from the online shoe retailer Zappos, where Tony Hsieh has challenged the long standing cultural values innate in most corporate environments.  He built a culture repeatedly recognized as one of the best environments to work in not by over institution of processes and accountability measures but by employee empowerment.  Simply put Tony trusts his employees to get the job done.  This trust is demonstrated through empowering employees to recognize each other with monetary rewards, to interact with customers uncensored, and the freedom to express their personalities at work freely.

For many, this seems counter-intuitive to all that we've been taught as we've come up through the ranks.  We've been taught that oversight is needed at lower levels in organizations due to the type of worker, their level of interest, their level of knowledge, their background, and on and on.  We institute policies that require our employees to ask a supervisor before they correct an error for a customer, or we try to ever increase performance by changing the incentive plans, or we monitor higher rates of transactions to ensure quality but continue to wonder why performance never remains high and employee engagement dwindles.

Your People are Assets

Companies like Zappos are showing us that these long held beliefs are not only false but that they actually fly in the face of most corporate values.  Most organizations talk about how their people are their biggest asset, but most companies don’t back up these comments or slogans with actions that support it.  In addition, most companies are focused on minimizing costs and operating efficiently.  One of the largest expenses a company can have, whether large or small, is around recruiting expenses.  To recruit, hire, and train a new employee is very costly and for companies like Zappos that cost is minimized through extremely low attrition rates.

Employee Trust Equals Employee Engagement

The lesson for leaders here is that with trust as a key cornerstone of your leadership style and your company values, you’ll engage your employees to do better work, minimize the need for costly process monitoring and incentive plans, and ultimately maintain lower attrition rates.  Trust is such a simple concept but with the ingrained history of management and leadership theory, it is a challenging element to ingrain in your culture.  What step can you immediately take to begin demonstrating this key characteristic of leadership in your business?  Start small but start today or you and your business will find yourselves behind the cultural evolution of workplace and employee needs.