Empowering your employees is based on a simple concept – giving your employees more input and control over their work and allowing them to make suggestions about improving the organisation – but in practice it can be surprisingly difficult to achieve.
Having empowered employees has a number of advantages. It allows your employees to think creatively and critically, which can help to find unique solutions to problems. It also increases job satisfaction, motivation and loyalty towards the organisation, all of which lead to stronger productivity and longer employee retention.
However, studies from University of Illinois suggests that the process of empowering employees is often mishandled. “It’s a paradox – employee empowerment being forced upon employees by management,” said Professor Dilip Chhajed, “What usually ends up happening is that employees feel they are being forced into doing something that they may not even see as being very useful.”
Instead, he says, empowerment means employees need to feel their contributions and suggestions mean something in the workplace; they need to feel in control, not feel they are being controlled.
Empowerment means employees need to feel their contributions and suggestions mean something in the workplace; they need to feel in control, not feel they are being controlled
“There should be some top-down direction in terms of where the initiative should go and what are we in business for,” said Gopesh Anand, one of the authors of the research paper. “But there needs to be balance between the top-down goals and the bottom-up improvements.” In other words, managers shouldn’t try to force employee empowerment; all they can realistically do is facilitate it.
Facilitating empowerment can be broken down into 5 steps.
The first step is, as a manager, wanting to give power to your employees. This may sound simple, but it’s often where the process breaks down, as it requires you to relinquish some of your control to your employees. If for some reason you don’t want this to happen, you should re-evaluate why you want your employees to be empowered and what benefits it will bring to yourself and the organisation. You also need to watch your behaviour when things go wrong. It’s easy to empower people when there is little risk, but can be seriously tempting to wrench control back when things don’t go to plan. Rather than doing that, try and keep a learning approach – “that was interesting, what did we learn, how are we going to do this better”?
The second step is being able to empower your employees effectively. This requires the manager to take a step back and allow their employees take charge of the situation, while still guiding their work in the right direction. Many managers may not have the skills to effectively delegate work. Something I commonly hear from managers is “I don’t have time to delegate, it’s quicker just to do it myself”. If this sounds like you, you should consider developing or refining the skills you need to delegate work effectively.
The third step is trusting in your employee’s motivation. If your employees are demotivated, which can happen for a number of reasons, they will not want the responsibility that comes with empowerment. If your employees lack confidence, try mentoring or training them, or start by delegating smaller responsibilities to build up their confidence. Try to encourage them to share their ideas, either directly or through an anonymous feedback system. Above all, listen to what they have to say and act upon it, so that your employees can see that their actions do have an impact in the workplace.
The fourth step is trusting in your employee’s ability. Even if they are willing to act autonomously, they may not have the skills or training to perform tasks independently. If so, consider training or coaching them, or arrange for them to attend development seminars or courses in order to build up their skills.
Finally, although appreciating your employees is something you should always do, this is especially important if you are attempting to empower them.
Empowerment requires employees to act beyond their basic responsibilities in the workplace, and in doing so they should feel their extra effort is appreciated. Even simply thanking them for a job well done can go a great deal in motivating your people.
Rosalind is the Principal Consultant of Shaping Change, an Australian consultancy, specialising in improving business outcomes by developing individuals, teams and organisations.
Ros works with leaders and managers who are experiencing challenges truly leveraging the talents and skills of their people. Ros is a solutions and results oriented facilitator and coach, with a career in the Human Resources and Organisational Development field spanning more than 20 years. Ros brings an energetic and proactive approach combined with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Her expertise spans leadership development, organisational culture, team building, change and transition management, organisational behaviour, employee engagement and motivation, strategic direction and management.
Ros is a talented executive and leadership coach, with current coaching clients at Executive and Senior levels in Government agencies, private enterprise and the community sectors. She is a sought after guest speaker and subject matter expert at events and conferences.