“My wife, Mary Jean, owned a soft ice cream store, which operated from April 15 through Labor Day. Both of our children, Kate and Andy, worked there during the summer months. After they had worked there a few weeks, Mary Jean made this comment to each of them: ‘You’ll often be working by yourself. I have confidence you can handle the job. You also have the power to do whatever is needed to satisfy the customer. However, you’re also responsible for managing costs. We need to make a profit.’”

This is an excerpt from Paul B. Thornton’s book Be the Leader: Make the Difference. And with workplace trends of decreased employee engagement, increased active disengagement, and the speeding train toward burnout, leaders need to make more effort to meet the psychological needs of those they lead. The story is as an example for leaders of the first of the three psychological needs: autonomy.

STOP! Autonomy may not be what you think it is. Autonomy means being in control of our individual contributions and knowing our actions create positive change (relative to Self-Determination Theory which is what I’m talking about here).


Let employees take their own path. You don’t get dressed in the morning the same way other people do, and you don’t expect others to follow your morning routine. So, why expect others to complete work the way you do? We work better when how we do something is congruent with who we are. For example, I am a visual and kinesthetic learner. To problem solve, I like to use colored markers and flipcharts while grooving my body to music.  Someone else might be a better problem solver in front of a computer creating a spreadsheet of options. It’s “you do you and I’ll do me” thinking.

Discuss individual talents and let employees use them. When is the last time you and your employees assessed talents and strategized how to capitalize on them?  One of the BEST tools I use with clients is People Styles at Work and Beyond. If you want your employees to communicate better, this is most definitely the tool–I can help you with it! If you prefer another tool (DiSC, Insights, MBTI, Strengths). I can help you with that too! I know people.

Recognize contributions openly. Notice employees who are working hard. Notice employees who are holding it together even though they’re faced with constant change and uncertainty. A little encouragement goes a loooooooong way. If your employee likes a little public love and adoration, say it when the whole team is present. If your employee prefers it privately, schedule a one-on-one to make it really special.


  1. Ask your employees what each believes their role is.
    1. Is it accurate? Do you need to clarify?
    2. Ask how they plan to fulfill their role. Coach them if needed.
    3. Stand back, check in, and be available when they ask.
  2. Discuss each employee’s strengths with them and ask them:
    1. How are you currently using your strengths?
    2. How else can I provide opportunities to use your strengths?
    3. Create the opportunities they need.
  3. Identify something each employee has done well in the past three months. Now, tell them!


What employees can’t live without

Are your employees disengaged?

Reasons disengaged employees cost $$