Sure, empower employees – but don’t forget about accountability
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Sure, empower employees – but don’t forget about accountability

These days, “empowering” employees is almost universally seen as a good thing. After all, good employees who are given room to exercise their talents and express their intelligence will always be more motivated and productive than wage slaves chained to inflexible demands and procedures — won’t they?

Well, up to a point. But to understand what’s also needed, beyond empowerment, let’s look at a study from MIT and INSEAD, the European business school near Paris.

The MIT/INSEAD researchers had students proofread various texts over several weeks, and set a deadline for completing the task. The participants were paid for each error they caught. But they lost money for each day after the final deadline that they failed to complete the job.

The researchers had the participants perform the task under three different conditions. All had the same ultimate deadline, but:

  • In the first group, participants had only that single deadline.
  • In the second group, participants were told to set interim deadlines for themselves.
  • In the third group, participants were given evenly spaced, externally imposed interim deadlines.

Which group do you think performed best?

Degrees of success

As you might expect, the participants who were left on their own did the worst.

So did the ones “empowered” to set their own deadlines feel more ownership over the task and do the best? Nope. The ones who had the externally imposed deadlines did best. Not only were they best at meeting the final deadline, but the quality of their work was better.

The reason why the single deadline didn’t work is obvious. Everybody suffers from the disease of procrastination. But why didn’t the self-imposed deadlines yield the best performance?

Internal bias

The reason, according to the research, is because of our biases about ourselves. We can come up with all sorts of reasons why a self-imposed deadline should be pushed back, and we overestimate our ability to get back on track later. External deadlines give us less wiggle room.

Now, it might seem that these results are an indictment of the whole idea of empowerment, suggesting that you really do need to micromanage people to get good results. But that’s not the case.

In fact, all of these students were equally “empowered.” Nobody was looking over their shoulders while they worked, and they were free to decide when and how they’d do their work.

What differed was their accountability.

Accountability

The first group was held accountable only for the final results. The second group was accountable only to themselves while the project was under way. The third group had ongoing, explicit accountabilities.

In other words, empowerment with high accountability works. Empowerment without accountability is a recipe for failure.

What are the implications of this research for managers? There’s an obvious one, about deadlines: If you’ve given people a task that takes, say, a number of weeks, you may want to set interim deadlines for them. The research suggests their performance will be the better for it.

But deadlines are only one aspect of accountability, and there’s a broader lesson about the relationship between empowerment and accountability. Deadlines and other external accountabilities don’t disempower employees. On the contrary: They make empowerment more likely to succeed.


This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Empowerment and accountability: How Much Rope Should You Give Your People?” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following scholarly article: Ariely, D. & Wertenbroch, K. (2002) Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Pre-Commitment. Psychological Science, 13(3), 219-224.

 

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