Plenty of things have gotten harder lately from political divides to new complexities in how work gets done. It’s harder to connect and more challenging to ensure health and safety. But leadership may have just gotten easier.
A new study finds there are three things people want most from leaders—and when people feel these needs are met they tend to be more engaged, productive and even optimistic. What’s good for people is good for business.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed as a leader, it’s certainly a legitimate response. The press emphasizes all the pressures of leading. New data suggests productivity is down by 7.5% in the first quarter of 2022—the biggest decline in worker output in 75 years, according to the U.S. Labor Department–and leaders are accountable.
The polarized climate outside the workplace can put pressure on leaders to take a stand—or to hold back at the right points. Mental health and wellbeing of employees is declining, and leaders must support, empathize and boost people even as they may be struggling themselves—requiring emotional labor.
And the talent revolution is underway with leaders having to make tough decisions to lay people off, even as some are challenged to keep people who may be considering quitting. In addition, within a new context of hybrid work leaders must find the right balance between giving people choice and motivating them to come to the office.
Big Results from Focused Effort
But leaders can cut through the cacophony and find ways to be effective with three simple areas to focus. People need autonomy, a sense of competence and they need to feel like their leader cares.
When people experience these factors, the results are significant, according to a study by University of Bologna and Wilmar Schaufeli of Utrecht University. When they have these, people tend to be more optimistic, resilient, flexible and confident about their contributions.
Teams also tend to see positive effects—they provide more feedback to each other, have greater trust, communicate better and participate more in decision making. All of these have links to engagement, performance and plenty of positive outcomes for both people and companies.
It’s a big payoff—based on a straightforward focus in just three areas. Here’s what’s behind each.
3 Things People Need
#1 – Autonomy
First, people want to have a sense of independence, choice and empowerment. In short, people want to be treated like grownups. Choice is significantly correlated with greater engagement, better performance and increases in happiness. Having more choice provides people with greater capacity to address multiple demands—leaving work early on a Tuesday for a family commitment and then turning on later that evening to address job responsibilities. Or staying late on a Friday to bring the project to the finish line and then working from home on a Monday—these are the payoffs in terms of quality of life. But choice also sends important messages. People know they are trusted to make good decisions, and they feel valued for the outcomes they deliver—not just the hours they work.
People are significantly driven by an instinct for reciprocity—when someone does something for you, you want to do something in turn. And when leaders offer trust, empowerment and choice, people respond with commitment, effort and performance.
Leaders can provide autonomy by giving people more choices in where, when and how they work. Leaders can also consider how they empower people to make decisions, give input and have a voice in how things are running. People also appreciate having options in the projects they contribute to and the types of growth opportunities they have.
Choices can be big or small—from alternatives in hybrid working to smaller things like which local association meetings they want to attend or whom a leader might be able to introduce someone to for mentoring.
In the end, more choice is better, but choice is also individual—and leaders are wise to understand what’s most important to each employee and deliver the kinds of empowerment which will mean the most for their unique situation.
#2 – Competence
People also want to have a sense of their own competence. In fact, people all have an instinct to matter. And when people contribute to their community and have the opportunity to express skills and talents, these are linked with greater happiness, joy and fulfillment.
Leaders can emphasize competence by providing strong direction. People don’t want to just lay bricks brilliantly, they want to know they’re building castles. Reminding people about the vision and mission of their work can be motivating because there is line of sight to a bigger picture. And leaders can ensure they’re providing recognition for work which is done well.
In fostering a sense of competence, leaders are also smart to hold people accountable for results. Having deadlines and receiving feedback—reinforcing or corrective—let people know a leader is paying attention, the work matters and the leader wants to help the employee continuously improve.
Leaders can also reinforce competence by standing by people if they make mistakes or fail. If people are stretching and taking appropriate risks to innovate, they won’t always succeed. But when leaders provide support through the project that sputters, they demonstrate an important commitment to a person’s overall value and worth.
#3 – Caring
People also want to know leaders care. In a world where so much is coming at people all the time, attention is one of the most scare resources, and leaders who are present and accessible and who empathize and demonstrate compassion are those people trust and want to follow.
Leaders should stay in touch with people through regular one-on-ones and be accessible when people reach out. They do well to tune into people and notice when they may be struggling. Leaders can ask questions and listen, connecting people with resources for non-work issues as necessary or providing guidance on key tasks where people may need support.
Leaders can also create the conditions for team members to develop great relationships with each other—and foster a culture of empathy and compassion. Make room for team members to share personal stories at the beginning of a meeting or take the time for social moments.
But also put people together on projects where they have to contribute to common goals and have the chance to learn from each other. People tend to bond through task more than through social experiences, so shared efforts can be powerful in building trust and relationship between team members.
Elegance and Simplicity
The best solutions are the ones which are most straightforward. When things are complex, overwhelming or difficult, it can be tremendously helpful to find a simple, elegant solution. And focusing on just three things as a leader may be just the easy approach leaders need now.