How to get the best out of your employees

Job autonomy and a trusting relationship with management are essential for employees to thrive, develop and to want to improve their performance, their job as a whole and thereby also their workplace. Thomas Faurholt Jønsson, associate professor of organisational psychology from Aarhus BSS recommends distributing leadership to a greater extent for innovative improvements that can ultimately impact the bottom line.

Employees are absolutely central to all development processes in a company. They have the expertise, information and first-hand experience of customers, services and products, and therefore constitute a huge innovative potential. But how do you realise this potential? Employees who, in practice, help to manage the many actions and processes of the workplace, find that they get more new ideas, more support for new ideas and do more to implement improvements in the workplace.

This is the result of the research published by Associate Professor Thomas Jønsson from Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University, in the European Journal of Innovation Management. The article was written in collaboration with Christine Maria Unterrainer, Department of Psychology, University of Innsbruck, Austria, and Helena Grøn Kahler, Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences, Aarhus BSS.

"Employees should be in an environment characterised by freedom and a sense of security to generate ideas and implement them," says Thomas Jønsson.

A free and safe work environment can, however, also lead to a lack of direction. If the employees do not fill in the void and act themselves in a targeted and coordinated manner, the environment can become very unproductive. One way of doing this is to involve employees and actively engage them in managerial tasks. By taking on leadership, employees can meet the need for development and they can take action. This is employee-driven innovation.

Job autonomy

Job autonomy is characterised by the freedom to perform and organise your own tasks, and Thomas Jønsson speaks about the concept of job autonomy as a prerequisite for employee-driven innovation.

J​ob autonomy is important, among other things because freedom gives employees the opportunity to experiment with new solutions and improvements and thereby discover new opportunities (idea generation), and because job autonomy increases employees' willingness to implement new initiatives in the workplace.

When you distribute decision-making power, you have better opportunities to meet customers' special needs, it's easier to rectify errors in the production process, and proposals for improvement can be implemented and further developed. And autonomy in work is among the things that most employees thrive on most."

Thomas Faurholt Jønsson, associate professor, Department of Psychology and Behavioural Science, Aarhus BSS


Trust is also a prerequisite for user-driven innovation. Trust is important in human relations, and it is no less important in the relationship between employee and manager. Trust provides a basis for collaboration and a sense of security, and can be seen as an alternative to management and control. Trust is an expectation that the other party will not act for personal gain, is honest and will make an effort, and it also serves as a basis for your own willingness to show vulnerability, take chances and try out new ideas.

"Greater self-determination and trust in employees improve their decision-making power and their competencies related to the services provided by the company. At the same time, work processes become more efficient when the most competent person in the field is permitted to act efficiently," says Thomas Jønsson and continues:

"When you distribute decision-making power, you have better opportunities to meet customers' special needs, it's easier to rectify errors in the production process, and proposals for improvement can be implemented and further developed. And autonomy in work is among the things that most employees thrive on most."

Formal leadership is still necessary

But it takes more to ensure that decisions are also implemented in the company. All ideas must be coordinated, goals must be set, and a strategy and a time plan must be established and subsequently evaluated. This means that formal leadership must continue, otherwise the distribution of leadership will not succeed. If employees have freedom and leadership has been distributed, the question is will they translate this freedom into action? The manager is responsible for supporting the employee.

This means that there will always be a need for formal leadership, but the formal manager does not have to be solely responsible for every small step in developing the company, setting goals and sub-goals, planning, coordinating and organising. Both managers and employees can take care of this, just as several people can work together to perform these managerial tasks. In fact, successful teams are very much characterised by the participants leading each other. Either in the form of self-managing project teams, quality committees or key persons with special responsibility for work environment, IT implementation, well-being, input for new goals at the workplace, coordination of different areas etc.

Useful in similar environments

"As a manager, you can strengthen employees' initiative to take on leadership when necessary, for example by acknowledging employees when they themselves take on leadership, and by using mistakes as an opportunity to learn rather than punishing employees, thereby promoting employees' knowledge and ability to lead," says Thomas Jønsson and then asks two important questions:

"Has your leadership been distributed enough and in the right way? Or are there areas that could benefit from joint action? "

These are questions that the individual company or workplace should try to answer, as a high degree of distributed leadership results in a more successful company.

The results were found via surveys in a hospital environment, but may be useful in many similar environments, and they may therefore possibly be transferred directly to other workplaces.


Jønsson, T. F., Unterrainer, C., & Kähler, H. G. (2020). Do Autonomous and Trusting Hospital Employees Generate, Promote, and Implement More Ideas? The role of distributed leadership agency. European Journal of Innovation Management, 1-23.