The notion of empowerment in organisational theory has graduated from a mere buzzword to an empirically tested motivational tool. Empowering employees has been accepted as a major factor in facilitating a successful and productive working environment. This is through ensuring your employees feel valued, trusted and satisfied in their roles. Which, in turn, means the empowered workforce is better placed to deliver optimum results.
However, not everyone is convinced. Some roles don’t appear to lend themselves to any empowerment at all - and not all empowerment is created equal either. Consequently there are many managers and situations where any semblance of empowerment is denied, for fear of the potential ramifications
Here we discuss the nature of empowerment in the workplace, it’s benefits, drawbacks and simple ideas for increasing empowerment you can implement in no time at all.
What is Empowerment?
Empowerment, as defined in the Free Dictionary is
1. the giving or delegation of power or authority; authorisation
2. the giving of an ability; enablement or permission
In a organisational context, we consider empowerment to mean granting individual employees or teams autonomy, responsibility, and decision-making capability in their work.
Of course, this definition is about as broad as it gets. Which is good, as it means the extent to which you empower people, and the areas in which you do it, are incredibly diverse.
For instance you could empower managers to make decisions as large as the department budget, product strategy, and who they hire to work with them. Or you could empower everyone to decide how they manage their workload on a day to day basis. Or offer them the freedom to suggest their own expenses policy. With such a broad applicability, there are many different ways in which empowerment can be achieved. It is essentially an extension of job design itself.
And fortunately, any empowerment - large or small - can yield a positive benefit.
The benefits of empowering employees
But what are these benefits? Why should you empower anyone in the first place?
One major benefit derives from the perceived ‘trust’ you’ve placed in employees. Which can serve as a galvanising force, instilling in them a desire to reciprocate the trust & ‘prove you right’.
Empowerment is a motivating factor, causing people to take more care in their decision making - knowing that it’s now “their responsibility”. They can no longer point the finger at others, or explain away consequences with ‘I was told to'. It can also encourage employees to start thinking for themselves, approaching problems in novel ways - often with surprising (and positive) results.
A further benefit is found in the reduced decision-making overhead for management. Yes, it’s the manager’s role to make decisions. But research suggests that ‘decision fatigue’ is a real thing. And no organisation benefits from a situation where one person is a bottleneck to progress or fast movement. Especially where a competitive edge might be gained, or a major client won (or retained).
Finally, even low levels of empowerment can offer compounded returns. We’ve previously discussed the benefits of flexible working hours and working from home on occasion. By permitting employees a choice in this area you get the compounded benefits of: a happier employee, a more loyal employee, a more motivated employee, the increased productivity from reduced distractions, and the elimination of the stress and potential time loss caused by a typical commute.
It’s such a small decision, how many wins do you need?
The pitfalls of empowerment
Understandably, there is often concern when offering new levels of autonomy to employees. One of the concerns management may have when empowering employees is that this new found freedom of choice may be abused. Or that mistakes and sub-optimal decisions will be made. Don’t worry, this will happen. And it’s both a blessing and a curse.
It’s a curse because nobody likes to have their generosity abused. Or to have to recover from mistakes or setbacks. However, unless a mistake is particularly egregious or the advantage taken particularly costly to the business, these pitfalls are generally minor.
In fact, they can be seen as blessings. Because mistakes are really just opportunities to improve. Either through employee learning and improvement. Or a business opportunity to streamline and develop processes and systems that avoid repeating the mistake. As Thomas Watson Jr. is famously reported to have said when asked if he was going to fire an employee for mistakes: “No. Not at all, we have just spent a couple of million dollars educating him!
Further, you’ll likely find that an abuse of the empowerment is rare. It’s in most people’s nature to reciprocate trust, and risks are easily reduced with judicious checks and controls. But should abuse emerge, you’ve merely unearthed somebody you do not want in your organisation anyway. Which is a better outcome than their continued presence.
Easy methods for effective empowerment
One of the most effective ways to empower your employees is to set broad boundaries, rather than imposing too many (strict) limitations on their work. For example, many firms, enabled by technological advancement, now use flexibility around when and where employees work as an opportunity for empowerment. With the rise of encouraging remote work days, trends towards the less rigid ‘assigned desk’ model when in the office, and even ‘unlimited holidays’.
Another example is of customer service policies that give employees the freedom to keep customers happy (i.e. up to a certain monetary value) – without constantly having to consult management for approval. This not only has the psychological benefits of empowerment, but allows them to build a strong rapport with clients, while speeding up the process of delivering satisfaction. Leaving your customers happy, employees happy, and everyone with more time for other tasks.
In a similar vein, we believe Expend offers the chance to give even the newest employee the simple trust of a small budget for personal expenses and their own company card to spend it with. With both the potential to dramatically, and positively, shift their mindset from the get go, and (through customisable spending policies) offering processes and systems to manage perceived risk.
Another great approach for empowerment is to help employees find something that they excel at, or are really interested in, then empower them to play to those strengths. This can be done by pairing them up with others who have complementary skills, or by assigning them tasks and roles that will really bring out their best attributes. Amazon is a shining example of this - where employees are able to submit their own projects, then ‘advertise’ internally for people who are like minded and can help them action it.
Finally, there are behaviours that you can change as an individual that will affect how empowered your colleagues feel. For example, avoid cultivating an unapproachable persona, which signals the notion that your actions or decisions can’t be questioned - especially as a manger. We can all make mistakes, or fail to fully grasp situations. Creating an environment that leans towards an idea meritocracy - where employees feel comfortable to challenge assumptions, regardless of who made them, is a holy grail of workplace empowerment.
Doing the right things, the right way
Of course, that last suggestion might not sit well with some employers - we admit the entire concept of employee empowerment can be difficult to navigate at times. What if you give your employees to much freedom and they blow your budget irresponsibly, you might wonder, or what if you lose control of the business that you have worked so hard to build?
While these concerns are understandable, there are steps you can take to minimise the perceived risks involved. You can start small. You can choose the right tools that facilitate the empowerment (i.e. work-from-home laptops, or secure logins). You can use tools to limit the extent to which an action is possible, without making it seem limiting (i.e. Expend’s customisable spending policies). But key to all of these is appropriate support via training and clear policies that help everyone understand, and handle, their responsibilities effectively.
In the end though, however you approach it, a belief and trust in your employees’ abilities is a fundamental requirement of the empowered workplace. If they feel valued, trusted, and able, evidence shows that the workforce will consistently deliver a far better performance.
A clear win-win situation indeed.
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