Laurie Ruettimann, on the transformational power of self-leadership

By Alex Larralde
Updated September 2, 2022
5 minute read

Laurie Ruettimann is on a mission to make work better for everyone.

And, yes, she means everyone: blue-collar workers, administrative assistants, middle managers, HR specialists, and executives.

“People are trying to figure out who they are,” says Ruettimann, author of “Betting on You” and host of the Punk Rock HR podcast. “When they find that they’re working within the construct of an organization that doesn’t allow them to be individually interesting, have a life outside of work, or achieve great things within work without a bunch of obstacles, they’re choosing to leave.”

And she’s not saying this as an outside observer. Her radical approach to fixing work is rooted in her years of experience as an HR professional herself, starting out as an HR assistant for Leaf Candy Company before going on to work at Monsanto, Alberto-Culver, Kemper Insurance, and Pfizer.

Here’s what she says organizations can do to create the kind of environment where people will want to stay.

Start from the bottom and work up

The traditional top-down approach to setting goals is backwards, Ruettimann says. Tapping into the human element at the front lines of the organization can have far greater impact.

“When people talk about performance management goals, they think of it from a top-down approach. How do we motivate people to be more productive, to drive greater profitability and more revenue?” Ruettimann says. “I think that good people who are happy make great employees who ultimately do those things, so I don’t start at the top of the pyramid.”

Instead, she recommends asking these questions of employees:

  • What makes you happy?
  • What makes you feel like the work you’re doing is worthwhile?
  • What can we do to really build you up as human beings so that you see work as an important piece of your life but not the only piece of your life?
  • What do you need so that you can show up, feel rested and fulfilled, and do the work that we need you to do?

Empowering better performance requires understanding what makes each person tick. “If you start your conversations like that,” Ruettimann says, “that’s a better way of having that conversation than the top-down approach.”

Empower employee self-leadership

Autonomy is a key factor for employees who succeed. Ruettimann has learned that employees who are self-leaders tend to be happiest and produce the best results. Even something as simple as making the conscious decision to approach your day with optimism can give employees a sense of control, no matter where they’re located in the hierarchy.

Employees can kickstart self-leadership on their own by setting goals for themselves that transcend work. “I’m a big believer in setting individual goals that include work instead of work goals that include individual items for your personal life,” Ruettimann says. “When I think about goal-setting, I start with what I want to accomplish with my life, not my job.”

Building that self-leadership muscle in your organization, however, demands a culture change.

“Self-leadership is built on a foundation of trust in an organization. It is the art and science of individual accountability,” Ruettimann says. “You can’t have individual accountability if your workforce is scared of doing their jobs, making mistakes, and unsure of the outcome of taking risks.”

To create a workforce of self-leaders, employees need to feel psychologically safe. They need to feel like they have the space and time to “lean into their knowledge, skills, and abilities without fear of being fired,” she says.

Your organization’s definition of priorities and consequences will determine whether employees feel safe. For starters, shift your perspective to perceive failure as a learning opportunity.

“You teach people to be self-leaders by encouraging them to fail, to make mistakes, by talking very candidly about the things they’ve done wrong but also showing them how those mistakes can lead to greater gains in the organization,” Ruettimann says. “It’s really about normalizing failure and removing fear.”

Tools like Betterworks can help. “If you’re aligned on what needs to be done, you trust your workforce to do it, and you have a mechanism to have a really good conversation about it, then you can instill a sense of autonomy,” Ruettimann says.

Help employees choose well-being

We live in a culture that praises the hustle, and that can be unhealthy when employees prioritize overwork and exhaustion over their well-being. Habitual overwork will only hinder employee success in the long run.

“Nobody ever did anything amazing at work by eating breakfast off their toddler’s plate. Nobody ever conquered the world on four hours of sleep,” Ruettimann says. “What we forget is that well-being is a choice that we can make every single day to eat, to drink, to move, to take care of ourselves to the best of our abilities.”

Your culture should help employees recognize that, to be their best, they need to take care of themselves first.  Without healthy boundaries, like the ability to safely say “no” to an assignment or ask a manager to reassess workloads, employees will be on a quick path to burnout — putting the whole business at risk.

“If you live with the spirit of well-being where you’re making better choices, not only are you going to thrive at work, you’re going to thrive in your personal life. Your cognitive abilities improve when you’re fueling your body properly, when you’re moving, and when you’re engaging in the world,” Ruettimann says. “When you’re having great relationships, when you’re spiritually connected, whatever that means for you, that has downstream effects that are bigger than work.”

Although this may seem out of your purview as an employer, managers can help employees make healthier choices.

“Managers have a role in asking: When do you work best? What hours do you need to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself and you’re getting the food and the rest that you need? When do you work most productively?” Ruettimann says.

Leading conversations about healthy boundaries allows managers to model making good choices and gives employees permission to do the same.

To make work better, staying focused on our shared humanity is essential, Ruettimann says: “Managers and leaders have to recognize that when they hire someone, they are hiring a person, not just a widget or a robot or somebody who can be automated and hacked into doing a better job.”

Take a broad approach to continuous learning

In a swiftly changing workplace, workforces need to embrace continuous learning. But learning outside of work can be just as valuable, Ruettimann says.

“A 30-day learning journey is something that you can encourage your employees to take if you’re a manager,” she says. “What are you going to learn in the next quarter that doesn’t have to do with work?”

It may sound strange for managers to encourage employees to learn how to smoke a brisket or take better photos, but those experiences can also help improve their productivity and engagement at work.

“When people come to me and say, ‘I’m bored at work,’ I take them on a 30-day learning journey and have them learn something totally unrelated to work,” Ruettimann says. “Individually, these people have come back and reported higher rates of engagement, feeling well-rested, feeling more in touch with the world, and also feeling more camaraderie with their colleagues because they have something to talk about other than the gossip and intrigue at the office.”

Don’t overlook the reality that employees are people. Ruettimann’s philosophy for improving work comes down to treating employees as people: with kindness, compassion, and concern for their well-being.

“Engaging people as people,” Ruettimann says, “and talking to them about something other than the job that they’re doing demonstrates your interest in their humanity.”

Although much of the work of empowering self-leadership comes from employers, employees themselves play an active role in making work better, too. “Waiting for an organization to fix your problems means that you jump from job to job and wonder why things are never changing,” Ruettimann says. “Employees are responsible for creating relationships, for learning — and they should take all that good stuff and bring it back to work.”

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