By: Sarah Kyo
Imagine an ideal workplace. Would the employees complete their assigned responsibilities, following their manager’s exact requests day after day? Instead, what if their manager encouraged them to suggest new ideas and provided access to interesting, strategic projects that went above and beyond their typical assignments? While the first scenario sounds efficient on paper, the latter example can help sustain the business into the future – and supportive people leaders are key to setting up that success.
In the past, Corporate America viewed employees as subordinates, according to business psychologist and leadership development expert Carl Robinson, PhD. Senior leadership had feared that developing employees would take power away from managers. However, current studies have shown that a workplace environment that encourages professional growth and initiative actually improves morale, productivity, and the bottom line.
When employees feel a greater sense of ownership in their work, they’ll have more motivation to be a high performer. According to one survey, employees are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to do their best work when they feel their voice is heard. For their employers, the difference between dedicated contributors and lackluster individuals has a huge impact on their financial situation. In fact, disengagement can cost companies $450 billion to $550 billion per year. In other words, employees and companies alike have something major to gain from employee empowerment.
What is Employee Empowerment?
According to the American Society for Quality, employee empowerment consists of an organization’s resources, measures, and procedures that offer their employees some level of autonomy and control in their day-to-day activities. Examples include decision making, additional tasks that enlarge or enrich their current responsibilities, and projects that are traditionally assigned to more senior team members.
Employee empowerment also means allowing employees to work independently without micromanagement or hovering from leadership. For example, strategy consultant Murielle Tiambo recalled a disconnect between senior management and regular employees when she performed a culture diagnostic at a large asset management company: On one hand, C-suite executives were shocked to hear employee feedback about a lack of employee empowerment because they thought there were enough available opportunities for employees to grow their skill set and take on new challenges. Even still, many employees expressed a lack of autonomy to make decisions on their own and a lack of agility when projects were continuously being held up by senior leadership, waiting on their approval to move forward.
“In my work, I’ve found that employees tend to see the misalignment between their aspirations and empowering approaches amid an over-reliance on top-down control, stemming from what employees see as a lack of trust in their abilities from those senior to them,” Tiambo wrote. “It is therefore critical for leaders to create space for regular and consistent trust-building conversations through which employees can be heard by their leaders.”
Setting the tone for employee empowerment requires consistent messaging and execution throughout the organization. If employee empowerment is not currently part of the company culture, then organizational change may need to occur with a variety of perspectives represented in the change management roles. This front-end investment of time, resources, and efforts can clarify expectations and make a positive impact on the company and its employees.
Management’s Impact on Employee Empowerment
Besides an overarching transformation, shifting to a mindset centered on employee empowerment requires micro-level adjustments. If you are a people manager, you play an important role in creating a work environment that values supporting and trusting employees, giving them the space do their best work, and seeking out key projects and duties for your individual contributors. You are the bridge between senior leadership’s business goals and the employees who will execute those desired outcomes.
A common misperception regarding employee empowerment is that managers need a 100 percent hands-off approach in order to give autonomy to their team. In the fact, the opposite is true: According to a McKinsey & Company study, organizations with leaders who successfully empower others through coaching are almost four times more likely to excel in decision making and outperform their industry peers.
“Many managers think delegating to others and empowering them means leaving them alone to make decisions,” according to McKinsey & Company’s findings, “but successful empowerment requires involvement, it means being hands on, just not directive – playing the role of inspiring coach and servant leader and providing guidance and guardrails, but not making the decision.”
It is a delicate balancing act to guide employees without getting overly involved. If you are new to employee empowerment, or would like to improve your coaching skills, what steps can you take? Reach out to Human Resources – they can offer guidance and best practices to help managers effectively empower their team. Talent management solutions are also a wonderful resource for better understanding your role in performance management, feedback, and coaching.
8 Ways Management Can Empower Their Employees
In addition to Human Resources and trainings, there are action steps that people managers can take now to better strengthen their relationships with their employees. These eight tips offer a framework to support you and your team for upcoming, empowering opportunities.
1. Seek out the right opportunities
When you have your one-on-ones or performance conversations, get to know each person’s goals. What new skills do they want to learn? Where do they see themselves a year from now? How about three to five years from now? Then, pay attention to chances for delegating new work to them, appropriate trainings and webinars that align with your team member’s interests, and other prospects that the employee may be unaware of without your encouragement. Check in with your team member to see if this new opportunity fits their needs instead of being an additional burden to their workload. Part of employee empowerment is acknowledging potential limitations and not asking your team to do things they are uncomfortable with or incapable of performing.
2. Set expectations
Discuss the context of the new assignment, as well as potential ground rules and boundaries for your team member in this new area. That way your employee can confidently act and make decisions on their own while still following in line with company goals and best practices. Consider using core values communication to provide additional clarity and reiterate that messaging. Make sure to let your employee know that they can approach you if they ever have any questions or face issues along the way.
3. Trust your team
It is normal to feel a little bit worried about whether your team member can address a challenging issue, take on huge responsibilities, or face other unfamiliar tasks on their own – it is only human nature to fear the unknown and worry about worst-case scenarios. In order to empower your employees, though, you must trust them. Avoid constantly checking in on your employees – give them enough space to approach you on their own accord. Believe that each member of your team is capable of solving problems on their own and speaking up to ask for help when they need additional guidance.
4. Display empathy
Be aware that mistakes could occur during the process, but it is all about keeping things in perspective. Most issues can be resolved and serve as teachable moments for future improvement. Remember that everyone must start somewhere – including yourself earlier in your career. Take a coach or mentor approach with addressing your team member.
5. Offer resources
In addition to making yourself available for your team members, set your employees up for success when they are tackling their latest endeavor by providing the right tools and resources. Communication journeys are strategic content experiences with educational digital media such as engaging videos, infographics, and documents that encourage exploration and learning at your own pace on a computer or mobile device. Employees can refer to this content at their own convenience whenever they need a quick refresher of what they need to accomplish.
6. Give recognition
Your employee has completed a notable task or project – congratulations! What’s next? Notify senior leadership and the rest of the company about the accomplishments. Perhaps there is a shout-out section in the internal email newsletter, or there is a Slack channel for sharing great news throughout the company. Be effusive in your praise while making it personalized to the individual and their situation. Also, let your employees know how much you value them during team meetings and in one-on-one conversations.
7. Provide constructive feedback
When examining any part of your team member’s latest project or responsibility, start with the positive outcomes before going into areas for improvement. In both cases, be thoughtful and specific about the feedback you offer while meeting in a private setting. Letting someone know that they did a “good job,” for example, does not give them any direction regarding what they should continue doing in the future. Tell them which of their actions or attitudes you would like to see repeated and the impact it had on others. Also, remember that constructive feedback should be a dialogue, so it is important to create a safe space for your individual contributor to share ideas and suggestions.
8. Encourage two-way communication
If possible, include your employees in the decision-making and goal setting that affects your team. If they can’t be involved in these early stages, be open to hearing their ideas and input along the way. Not only can being receptive to feedback help empower your employees, it can give your organization the opportunity to hear great new ideas. During the execution phase of the project, make yourself available if your team member wants to talk to you about their challenges. Be open to hearing what they need from you and ask them directly during your conversation regarding how you can support them. Take steps to make improvements and correct any potential errors on your part during this new journey together. Once the project has been completed, have a debrief to discuss what went well and what were potential areas for improvement.
The Ultimate Legacy of Employee Empowerment
Employees are a valuable part of your organization through their ideas, contributions, passion, and spirit. When they are given chances to develop, they can make an even greater impact that will positively influence the company’s goals and bottom line. It is up to the organization to provide a support system that allows them to fully utilize their talents and help them reach their greatest potential.
Simply offering new opportunities and challenging projects on their own is inadequate, though. Instead, there still needs to be an organizational culture that allows employees to be self-sufficient in order to make decisions and accomplish projects within their abilities and powers. At the same time, people managers are essential for providing foundational support and guidance along the way.
Ultimately, employees are the most empowered when they feel confident to make a difference with the assistance of guardrails, not barriers. When these priorities are set in motion, the company will reap the rewards of having dedicated, productive employees for their business.