Create an Environment Where Motivated, Competent People Can Succeed

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 15, Issue No. 4b
August 15, 2016

By Dan Coughlin

A manager is a person whose responsibility is to guide the efforts of other people to achieve desired results.

A manager’s title might be CEO, COO, CMO, CFO, vice-president, senior director, director, branch manager, store manager, or something else. Regardless of the title, if the person is responsible for guiding the efforts of other people toward achieving desired results, then he or she is a manager.

A manager has several important responsibilities. In this article, I’m going to focus on the importance of creating an environment where motivated, competent employees can succeed.

Ideas from the Past Six Decades

Here’s a quick review of the past six decades on some of the thinking and writing on what gets the best performances out of employees.

In 1960, Douglas McGregor wrote The Human Side of Enterprise, where he pointed out that humans wanted to do challenging work they enjoyed and felt meaningful to them, and they didn’t just want to be told what to do all day, punch a clock, and receive a paycheck.

In the 1960s, Abraham Maslow wrote that true self-esteem rests on a feeling of personal dignity, the belief that you are in control of your own decisions and your own life. (This was later included in the book, Maslow on Management, in 1998.)

In 1964, Victor Vroom wrote Work and Motivation where he began to describe his Expectancy Theory, which, in a brief format, says that people’s motivation depends on what they expect is going to happen. First, how much they expect their effort to actually deliver the performance necessary to achieve the desired result. Second, how much they expect the achievement of the results to bring them the rewards they want. Third, how much they expect to value the rewards when they receive them. If all three expectations are high, then the person will be highly motivated to try his or her best.

Starting in the 1970s, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan studied the conditions that brought out the best performances in people. They developed a concept they called Self-Determination Theory (SDT). They wrote, “Self-determination theory maintains that an understanding of human motivation requires a consideration of innate psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.” Essentially, people need to know they are getting better at what they do, freedom to make their own choices in much of what they do, and to feel a meaningful connection to the people they work with. (If you google “self-determination theory pdf The What and Why of Goal Pursuits” the very first link should take you to a really good white paper by Deci and Ryan.)

In 2009, Dan Pink, who is sort of a researcher of researchers, wrote Drive, where he picked up on the work of Deci and Ryan, and wrote that the three key drivers of motivation at work are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. His point was that in addition to having control over how we do our work and what we focus on and even who we work with, and continually getting better at what we do, we also need an underlying purpose as to why we do what we do. Having a purpose is another psychological need that employees need to have met.

What Do Employees Want

That’s a lot to throw at you all at once. Here’s a one-paragraph summary of what employees want.

Employees want to earn money. They want that money at first to pay basic needs such as a place to live and food to eat. Eventually they want money to buy a nicer place to live, and then an even nicer place to live. They want money to support their children and their aging parents, to have insurance on their home, cars, health, and life. They want to go on nice vacations, and then nicer vacations. They want work that is challenging and meaningful. They want the freedom to make their own decisions at work and to do the work in the way they want to do it. They want to improve their skills and their knowledge so they can do even more meaningful work in even more effective ways. They want to work with other people in ways that are meaningful and enjoyable. They want to believe that their combined efforts will produce the desired results and that they will be successful as individuals, as groups, and as an organization.

What Do Managers Want

Managers want money for the same reasons listed above. Managers want the group to achieve desired results. Managers want to spend their time working with people in ways that help those people to succeed as individuals, as groups, and as an organization. Managers want healthy relationships with employees. Managers want to help employees improve and grow in multiple ways. Managers want to see continual improvement and progress both in terms of results and in terms of employee development.

How Can You Merge What Employees Want with What Managers Want?

Problems can emerge in the ways that managers try to get employees to produce the desired results.

Some managers think the key is to hover over the employees, tell them exactly what to do every 30 minutes, check up on them frequently, dole out rewards when the employee does as he or she is told, and dole out punishments whenever the employee doesn’t follow commands. I call this The 100% Lack of Autonomy Approach.

In today’s world the research completed by Deci and Ryan demonstrate that this approach does not work at all. It demotivates people tremendously to the point where their work performance falls dramatically or they simply quit the job. In 19 years of working with executives and managers and talking with their employees, I’ve never met a person who said, “My ideal boss would simply tell me what to do all day, and I would do it without asking any questions.” No one that I know of wants to be micromanaged.

However, very few managers are willing to let employees do anything they want whenever they want with whomever they want however they want, and just hope that this produces the desired results. I call this The 100% Autonomy Approach.

Provide Freedom within a Framework

What is the best environment a manager can create to help motivated, competent employees to succeed in a sustainable way? How do you merge the needs of employees and managers to produce the best possible performances and results. I believe the answer lies in creating a hybrid approach that allows for employee autonomy and management guidance and accountability.

I call this approach “Freedom within a Framework.” To visualize this approach, draw a rectangle on a piece of paper.

The employees work inside the framework. In there they have freedom. They have autonomy to choose how they will do the things they are responsible for. They also have freedom to choose when they will do them and where they will do them. If it makes more sense to them to work from home to fulfill the responsibility, then they do it from home. If it makes more sense to do it in an office or at a client’s location or at a neutral site, then they do it there. The employee looks for the challenge and the meaning in the work he or she is doing. If necessary, the employee talks with the manager to see why his or her responsibility is so important. The employee looks for ways to turn the responsibility into a source of fun and joy in their lives. Inside the framework, the employee receives coaching, mentoring, and guidance from the manager and other people so that he or she keeps improving in his or her area of responsibilities. Inside this framework the employee interacts with other employees when it makes sense to do so. Together they meet only when it’s necessary to improve the desired results, and they do so in a collaborative way where they exchange ideas and build on each other’s ideas to improve results. In this way, the employee develops meaningful, enjoyable work relationships.

The manager and the employee develop the framework in which the employees performs, but the manager gets the final say. The framework consists of four parameters. They are Values and Competencies, Common Procedures, Goals, and Time Frames. I’ll go through each one. They may not be exactly what you expect.

The Four Parameters of the Framework

Values and Competencies

Values are beliefs that determine behaviors. Every role in a company has certain values that are important to that role. It’s a mistake to think that a company’s Core Values are the only values that are important to every role. Competencies are the abilities the person needs to have, or needs to be able to develop, in order to do the job.

Common Procedures

Every company has basic operating procedures that employees follow. It can be a big waste of time and money to have every person develop their own procedures for everything. At the same time, if you have 500 SOPs (standard operating procedures), then you will have a very tiny field of freedom. Implement these common procedures sparingly.


These are the specific, measurable desired outcomes that the group is trying to achieve. These outcomes are what produce the desired revenues, profits, and financial sustainability of the organization. This is the output of the employees’ input.

Time Frames

I’ve added this one for two reasons. One, deadlines are important. Deadlines are a good thing because they do cause a sense of urgency and can enhance teamwork and innovation. Make sure the deadlines are realistic. Expecting an incredible amount of accomplishments in an unrealistic time frame can create burnout among your employees.  Two, time frames are important because people tend to work too many hours, not too few. It’s been my experience that managers generally need to encourage their employees to work fewer hours, not more hours. Allow for autonomy, but encourage employees not to burn themselves out to the point of doing mediocre work or quitting.

The Responsibilities of the Manager in this Approach

Managers who use the Freedom in a Framework Approach have certain responsibilities:

Management Responsibility #1: Clarify the Framework

Talk with the employees in each role about the four parameters they are operating in. Gather input from the employee, consider it, and discuss it. In the end, you will have the final say as to what are those parameters. The more clearly the employee understands the values and competencies, goals, operating procedures, and time frames, the more freedom he or she will have in operating inside of them. Without this understanding, the employee may feel compelled to constantly check with the manager as to whether or not what he or she is doing is okay.

Management Responsibility #2: Stay Out of the Way

This is the hard part for the manager. Don’t intervene inside the parameters. Allow the employees autonomy to make decisions, find their purpose, challenge themselves to improve and learn from their mistakes and deliver better performances, build meaningful work relationships, and enjoy the experience. Sometimes this takes a great deal of patience and faith and courage, but this is where managers separate themselves in terms of being an effective manager. If you always give in to the temptation of intervening every time the group’s results don’t look very good, then your employees will not deliver the performances they are capable of doing over the long term. They will become disenchanted and lose the intrinsic motivation they need to consistently perform at a high level.

Management Responsibility #3: Teach, Coach, and Mentor

Allowing employees to have freedom doesn’t mean the manager goes home and naps all day. Be available to answer questions, observe the employee in action and then on a periodic basis meet with the employee to ask questions and hear his or her thoughts, share your observations and suggestions and perspective, and be available to discuss situations as they come up when the employee wants to do so. As you do so, don’t interfere with the employee when he or she is in action and don’t dictate what the employee needs to do next. You’ve established clear parameters and you’ve been there to support the employee. Now don’t ruin things by stepping into the area where the employee has freedom and start taking away his or her freedom.

Management Responsibility #4: Follow-Through on the Expectations You Created

Remember Victor Vroom and his Expectancy Theory. You’ve created the expectation that if the employee steps outside of the parameters by acting way out of accordance with the prescribed values, the expected skills, the desired goals, the standard operating procedures, or the time frame, that you will follow through with some type of negative consequence.

You’ve also created the expectation that if the employee has operated successfully while staying within the framework, that he or she will receive positive consequences with praise, increased freedom, greater responsibilities, and/or increased compensation if the organization can afford to increase it.


By consistently providing freedom in a framework, you can create an environment and approach that increases the chances for sustainable success over the long term. You will allow employees to have autonomy, competency, mastery, relatedness, and purpose, and you will do so in a way that allows for accountability, builds a consistent culture and brand, and achieves important results.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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