Employees ask for many things, but one nearly everyone asks for is to be empowered. For most, the request is simple and requires no investment. And yet significant productivity and retention is lost because people don’t feel empowered and engaged. We often hear this as an expectation of millennials, but it crosses all generations and has been around for years. Lately though, in a tight labor market, it’s become something that can’t be overlooked in a human resource strategy.
Ask a hundred people and you’ll get a hundred definitions, but each will have several characteristics in common. The concept sounds so easy and intuitive, and yet some leaders have a difficult time putting it into practice for the benefits it can bring. Like so many leadership strategies, creating a more empowered environment will take an investment of time and a change of behavior for the leader. If not thoughtfully implemented, it will backfire and have adverse consequences.
Empowerment is about giving employees more responsibility, in particular, decision making, but it’s a lot more than that. It involves demonstrating your sincere trust in them to manage their time and produce the outcomes you’re looking for even if it’s not done your way. That requires providing them the tools, support, and the right amount of independence and supervision to succeed.
"More can be achieved when we extend more control to others who are capable. It’s an investment in the future."
Every employee will be different. Taking a one size fits all approach will work with some, but not others. Those mixed results can be enough to drive some leaders back to the tried-andtrue command and control approach. Here’s a few simple ideas for empowering the organization.
•Connection and communication enables empowerment. Disconnected leaders create ineffective organizations. Pointing out mistakes and judging someone’s approach creates a climate of fear, lowers confidence and kills empowerment.
Resist the temptation to “help” someone improve their idea or solve their problem until you’ve learned how to share your experience without killing their intrinsic motivation. Employees won’t share their ideas when the boss still has all the best ideas.
Replace the tendency to correct with support and guidance.
•You’re not the smartest person in the room anymore. Empowerment won’t survive in an environment where you tell capable people how to do their job.
There’s no power left for others when the leader speaks the words but maintains control over how it’s done.
Conversely, it’s not empowering to give responsibility to individuals who lack the skills or experience to succeed. Checking in at the right frequency with the right amount of direction is the secret to successful situational leadership.
•Practice managed patience and trust. Empowerment should make people feel as though they have more power. For empowerment to work the leader must give up some power. An individual’s development level dictates the empowerment level. All can participate but not all empowerment is equal.
•Expect mistakes. Something someone does will not work as expected. It would be healthy for the boss to remember their own mistakes and perhaps, laugh at them as well. Granting power means granting grace, too.
Resist the temptation to apply a policy or corrective action to everyone when the individual situation calls for leadership. Overreaction can communicate distrust and you wouldn’t grant power to people you don’t trust.
•Empowerment without delegation leads to frustration. Delegation is the grease that enables empowerment to work. Delegating power in an environment of trust requires that you explain what’s important. Clarity of priorities concentrates and creates energy.
Ambiguity is confusing and dissipates energy.
Empowerment thrives in an environment where the boss desires praise and affirmation to flow to the team more than to themselves. It honors the capabilities of others. Empowerment creates a feeling of independence and freedom with controlled risk.
Creating an empowering workplace takes humility, time, patience and persistence. More can be achieved when we extend more control to others who are capable. It’s an investment in the future. Those who stick with it will enjoy greater productivity, improved retention and a more engaged workforce.
Greg Gauthier is a partner with Foxwood Associates Inc.