In my last article of 2015 I concluded that “when it comes to employee engagement in 2016 perhaps it’s time to let go and to put engagement in the hands of the people who matter, the employees themselves.” In making that statement I realise that whilst for some organisations employee self-determination is a logical next step, for others the transition may be somewhat more painful. And for many businesses the determining factor will be the leadership.

Here, I’m not just talking about the leadership at the top of the organisation; I’m also referring to the group, department and team leaders who can have so much influence at every level of the organisation. Naturally, organisational leaders will have a tremendous influence, but particularly in large organisations it can be all too easy for department and other leaders to create their own silo leadership style which is at odds with the main business. For example, a global organisation may well promote the idea of flexible working or working from home and yet a department leader may require their team to work from a fixed base and keep office hours.

But the world of work is changing and regardless of where employees are physically based and what hours they keep, people are looking for a new relationship with their employer. In turn that relationship requires leaders to step away from dictatorial control and towards empowered guidance. If we look at the five practices which characterise world leaders they include inspiring a shared vision, encouraging the heart and enabling others to act. All of these move away from hierarchy and towards a vision which sees people at all levels working together towards a common goal.

When you trust your people great things happen

At the heart of all these practices sits trust. When you trust your people great things can happen, not the least of which is that people feel empowered to step beyond the immediate process and look to deliver something special. So customer complaints are followed through in a way that ensures customer satisfaction, product design and delivery benefits from an attention to detail which promotes quality and every individual looks to complete their tasks in a way which benefits the organisation and its customers.

What’s the catch? Well when people feel trusted and empowered then they naturally look to collaborate in the search for improved methods of working. This does mean that strict hierarchies and departmental silos become obsolete in the face of a free exchange of ideas. It also means that people will be less willing to settle for second best, for just-in-time training, and the HR and training departments may therefore see a rise in requests for new ways of working and new training modules. But at the end of the day these are minor problems compared with the benefits to be gained from empowered collaboration.

However, none of this is possible unless the leadership is prepared to create the conditions which enable proactive and innovative working to flourish. There are challenges ahead. The first weeks of 2016 have already seen concerns raised about a range of global issues. But whatever the year throws up what is certain is that businesses which try and control their way out of difficulty will be working at odds with their people. Now more than ever is the time for trust, for enabling people to take their place in delivering strong outcomes which will benefit the business, its people and its customers.