Want High Performance? Make Sure You Treat Your Employees Like Adults

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Jul 16, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

You would never frisk family members for silverware after Thanksgiving dinner, but this is essentially how many employers treat their employees.

Bag checks, security lines, stringent dress codes  — pretty much any policy you would find in a public high school is sure to demean and demotivate workers.

On the other hand, Netflix attributes its success in part to its culture of “freedom and responsibility,” which gives employees independence while holding them to higher standards.

Employees at Netflix don’t have limited vacation or traditional performance reviews and are not judged by how hard they work. In fact, because of this success, Netflix’s “culture deck” has been shared more than 11 million times in the past five years.

Companies that put babysitter policies in place think they’re being sensible. However, the majority of employees are responsible adults.

They’re leaders in their homes, communities, and places of worship. Valuing them as such is far more likely to encourage a positive work environment than policies that treat them like criminals.

Expect low morale with low expectations

A company that treats its employees like the enemy sets them up to be angry and unproductive. Both Amazon and Apple have struggled with these issues recently, alienating workers who could be very valuable.

Policies that control, rather than motivate, behavior send the message that employees are not capable of holding themselves accountable. These negative assumptions are often rooted in parent-child thinking (i.e., the belief that adults won’t do the right thing if given the freedom to).

Often, they’re also condescending. They focus on what you can’t do or spell out simple, common-sense assumptions. Examples include dress code policies that delineate every possible infraction — pictures included — or an attendance policy that includes a definition of what it means to “leave early.”

Treating dependable adults like incompetent teenagers is a surefire way to breed resentment and low morale — not the best working environment for today’s competitive market.

Stop babysitting and start leading

In high-performing environments, written policies empower leaders to treat employees like adults. Rather than being prohibitive, they outline the best ways to encourage employees to succeed.

You might think it’s impossible in the retail world, where margins are thin and competition is fierce. However, Nordstrom is far from failing, and it treats its employees like trusted professionals.

Its employee handbook, for example, is one sentence: “Use good judgment in all situations.” And to prove its great work environment, Nordstrom has been ranked on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list since the magazine started tracking it.

It’s not hard to create policies that empower employees, and you’ll see a huge benefit to treating adults like adults. Here are three ways to get started:

1. Involve and empower

General Motors CEO Mary Barra recently changed the company’s 10-page dress code to two simple words: “Dress appropriately.” When managers complained about teams wearing jeans to meetings, she suggested they talk to the teams directly.

Unsurprisingly, once they understood their managers’ concern, the teams agreed on their own policy that allowed them to wear jeans but stash dress pants at the office for impromptu meetings. Because they had a hand in creating the policy, employees felt valued.

2. Raise the bar

Stop telling employees what to do and how to do it. Instead, give them the freedom to get their work done.

Who is more likely to know the job best — the supervisor or the operator doing it day in and day out? The operator, of course! She knows the potential of the job, so give her goals, and let her figure out how to reach them.

“Treating people like adults creates such freedom,” said Luke Burmeister, chief financial officer of Didion Milling, a family-owned agricultural processing business. “We’ve hired the very best people and empowered them to do their jobs. It’s allowed me to focus on strategy and developing others.”

3. Manage the majority, not the minority

Are there employees who will steal and take advantage of relaxed policies? Of course, but you’ll find that they’re the minority. In an environment that sets high expectations, these employees will eventually out themselves. The majority of employees will respond positively to additional responsibilities and freedoms, and you’ll be amazed at the results they get with their own initiative.

There’s a direct correlation between high levels of mutual respect between workers and employers and a shared responsibility for profitability and productivity. Success in today’s market depends on this higher level of performance, which requires commitment from every team member, not just compliance.

When you have a workplace that incorporates trust and high expectations, you’ll see an improvement in every metric — and that’s the ultimate win-win.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.