How to Help Your Employees Take Charge of Their Lives

Before this month (August 2010), if any of the executives at JetBlue airline had been asked what keeps them awake at night, I would be willing to bet that none of them would have mentioned having a flight attendant engage in a profanity-laced tirade over the public address system, grab some beer from the galley, and deploy and slide down the emergency exit slide. Though the exact cause of this episode remains under investigation, clearly that individual had had enough. What may be more noteworthy than his high-profile exit, however, is the public’s reaction to the story.

Why is it that this very public meltdown of an airline employee resonated with so many U.S. workers? How is it that someone who engaged in highly dangerous and possibly illegal behavior has become an instant folk hero to many? It may be partly because this individual acted out a fantasy that workers share when they feel that they are not in charge of their lives Ė e.g., they tell the boss exactly what’s on their minds, leave their jobs behind, and head off into the sunset and a new life. In effect, they fantasize that they are taking control of their lives.

What’s wrong with this picture? For starters, having control of one’s life should be a reality rather than a fantasy. Yet workers often believe that other people and things are calling the shots. Viewing the world from this skewed perspective, it’s no wonder that they feel their lives are out of control. As a result, they are much more likely to “lose it” with customers than they would if they felt they did have some control. The good news is that managers can help workers mitigate the need for such a fantasy by providing tools and techniques that enable them to keep their cool and thereby maintain control over their behaviors. When people believe they are in charge of their lives, the world looks a whole lot different than if they feel that others are controlling them. Here are five ways that you can help employees dramatically improve their workplace experience by taking charge of their lives:

  1. Educate employees about their opportunities and choices.
    When people feel overwhelmed, they often believe, and then act as if, they are helpless. At those times they feel unable to help themselves, or even to consider the possibility that there are alternatives.
  2. Give people permission to take charge of their lives.
    Some individuals literally need to have someone tell them it’s okay to feel, see, or experience things differently than they have in the past.
  3. Communicate high expectations of workers’ performance and ability.
    Most people will try to live up (or down) to others’ expectations of them. Challenge employees in ways that enable them to realize their potential.
  4. Give employees the tools they need to respond appropriately. For example:
    A. Train them how to deal effectively with difficult customers.
    B. Back them up and reinforce their choices when they are appropriate.
    C. Identify the behavioral boundaries Ė i.e., what’s in and what’s out of bounds for themselves and for customers (internal and external).
    D. Help them develop alternative stories about what’s going on so they can control their thoughts, beliefs, and actions/behavior.
    E. Invest them with the authority to act and to be pro-active in their work (e.g., handle customer complaints without having to go to a manager).
  5. Support employees when customers are wrong.
    The saying, “The customer is always right” is a workplace myth that has caused more damage than we ever will know. It’s not true, and it communicates a highly misleading message to both employees and customers.

For employees to keep their cool in the workplace, they must have a sense of control. This feeling will help them handle negative, annoying, and/or disruptive behaviors in ways that can result in a constructive ending for all concerned. The good news: most of the tools and techniques described above result in huge benefits at little or no financial cost.

Let us know what techniques you have used successfully to help your employees take control of their lives!

Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. You may contact Pat or call (562) 985-0333.

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