This is part 9 of a multi-part Blog on Executive Leadership
Carl B. Forkner, Ph.D.
The…thing you can do to make your agency a more interesting place to work and consequently less bureaucratic is to enable those under you to feel they control their own areas of work. In this way, they acquire a sense of ownership in what gets done and how they do it. — Kenneth Ashworth
Empowerment provides more time for managers to focus on strategic decisions. Employee empowerment goes a step beyond time for managers to focus on strategic matters—it provides the authority for employees to make decisions that were once reserved for managers and leaders alone. Moreover, employee empowerment acts as a force multiplier by extending the analytical, decision-making, and collaborative reach of the organization. Because of the benefits of employee empowerment, it has become a mainstay in effective 21st century leadership, supporting a coaching style of management. Companies are generally operating with less authoritarian-style management and trying to get employees actively involved in business processes, as Kokemuller (n.d.) presented in the following four key points on empowerment.
Delegation. Empowerment walks hand-in-hand with delegation—leaders assigning tasks for subordinates to complete and timelines within which to complete them. Although similar, delegation has generally been around longer than empowerment but empowerment goes a step beyond simple delegation, by trusting employees to make decisions in situations when a manager is not available. In essence, delegation is typically more task-based while empowerment is more authority and decision-based.
|Empowerment||Authority and decision-making|
Theory X and Theory Y. Empowerment is more correlated with the “Theory Y” style of management, which Douglas McGregor explained in his 1960 book “The Human Side of Enterprise.” This is a coaching style, where McGregor’s “Theory X” was a more authoritative style. With “Theory Y,” leaders have a more optimistic view of the ability to get good work from employees. This belief makes them more likely to implement empowerment than “Theory X” leaders who are less trusting of worker capabilities.
As opposed to “Theory X,” “Theory Y” provides many benefits to organizations that harness motivational energy and increases productivity. These fours positive benefits include:
Decentralization and Delegation. If organizations decentralize control and reduce levels of management, each manager will have more subordinates and the result will necessarily be delegation of some degree of decision making and responsibility.
Job Enlargement. Broadening the scope of employees’ positions adds variety and opportunities while reducing boredom with the same old tasks, over and over.
Participatory Management. Including employees in planning and decision making means that leaders gain the benefit of their expertise, perspective, and creativity. Because management decisions may have a direct influence on their work environment, including employees in these processes may make change implementation more accepted and more effective.
Performance Appraisals. An effective practice is to have employees involved in setting reasonable objectives and standards, and then including them in the evaluation process. This does not mean letting them drive the evaluation process—it means ensuring they are capable of the desired outcomes and fully understand the criteria upon which they will be measured.
According to the premises of “Theory Y,” such an environment—if properly implemented—would result in higher employee motivation levels, including their personal needs for growth and satisfaction…and a concomitant increase in productivity and organizational success. (McGregor, 1960)
Empowerment Benefits. Organizations and their leaders have increasingly implemented empowerment because of the benefits of empowered employees. Employees generally feel a stronger sense of ownership and worth when entrusted to make important decisions which, in turn, makes them more productive in their roles. This may also have a positive effect on customer/client relations, since there may not be a need to wait when a manager is not available because an employee is empowered to make a decision in the manager’s absence.
Considerations. Employee empowerment may be as challenging in some work environments as it is rewarding. Effective leaders need to ensure that managers are trained in the coaching and empowerment style of “Theory Y” to understand more fully the value of empowerment and the appropriate delegation of authority and trust to make it work. Some employees also need ongoing coaching and training on how to make better use of empowerment, but leaders need to nurture empowerment rather than harshly criticize employees in order to make it work effectively and foster employee growth.
As a leader, you have probably had this experience at one time or another: You give an employee a task that allows the latitude for the employee to be creative, but rather than taking the task and making their own decisions, the employee bombards you with a litany of questions to find out exactly how you want it accomplished. This can be very exasperating, as the reason you gave the employee the task was (a) to take a minor task off your plate, and (b) to allow the employee to exercise judgment and initiative—a great way to see which employees may be gaining the skills to become a manager in their own right.
This isn’t an unusual predicament! Many employees find it difficult to break out of the leader-follower mindset. “Transformational leaders” are able to avoid the employee mindset of being excessively reliant on their bosses, developing a staff that feels empowered and self-guided. Trust and professional business skills are key in building this type of work culture and training informed and decisive teams that we can trust. Hendricks (2014) suggested six ways to empower your employees and get back precious time.
Encourage In-The-Moment Feedback. Instant, on-the-spot feedback is one way for your team to communicate workflow issues to one another so that proper action may be taken right away. Make sure to set ground rules for this feedback – it must be both constructive and respectful. Essentially, you want your team to trust you and each other to deliver honest and helpful praise and criticism.
Cultivate the Executive Mentality. Host regular meetings with your team, and share with them the large happenings within your organization. Help your team understand the main goals that you’re driving toward. Give them a rundown on how other divisions are performing – the more pieces of the puzzle your team gains, the easier it will be for them to enter the “executive mindset.”
Present New Challenges and Opportunities. It’s important to challenge your employees so they can demonstrate and achieve their full potential. For example, you might notice that your sales representative tends to rely heavily on email interactions – challenge them to get on the phone instead, and get outside of their comfort zone. You can also work with their unique interests and abilities – for example, you might notice that an employee loves to assist her team with processes. Invite this person to lead a customer workshop so that she can develop her presentation skills and build stronger client bonds. Or you might discover that a coworker is bilingual, and ask him to work with international customers. If you’re out of ideas, sit down with each member of your team and ask them what types of experiences would help them grow professionally.
Respect Their Boundaries. This step is a natural follow-up to “present new challenges.” While you want to push your employees to embrace new experiences, you don’t want to shove them so far out of their comfort zone that it becomes a negative experience. For example, you shouldn’t ask an employee to take on a task that’s outside the realm of their role – they’ll feel like you’ve tossed them out to the lions. If you’re ever unsure about an employee’s comfort level, don’t hesitate to check in and ask!
Give Them Flexibility. Okay, so you might be used to gripping the steering wheel really tight while directing your team. It’s time to let your employees drive. Examine your workflow, and identify key areas that would benefit from greater flexibility and creative input. These tasks might include content creation, marketing strategies, and company events. Sit down with your team and explain how much flexibility they will each have within a task. Don’t leave it open-ended – give them some parameters to work with so that they’re not overwhelmed with options.
Don’t Babysit. Giving up control and empowering your team can be a terrifying experience for many leaders. You might feel compelled to watch their every move and peek over their shoulders. But by monitoring someone’s every move, you’re actually impeding his or her ability to grow. Give your team some space, trust them, and you might be impressed by what they’re able to achieve.
Breaking out of the traditional leader-follower mindset can help you create stronger staff bonds founded on trust, self-confidence, and achievement. When you create room for independent work and decision-making, your team might discover that they’re able to achieve far more than they originally thought possible. Test drive these leadership techniques and see what your own team is really capable of. (Hendricks, 2014)
Hendricks, D. (2014). 6 ways to empower your employees with transformational leadership. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/drewhendricks/2014/01/27/6-ways-to-empower-your-employees-with-transformational-leadership/#310bee993268
Kokemuller, N. (n.d.). The concept of empowerment in leadership. Chron. Retrieved from http://smallbusiness.chron.com/concept-empowerment-leadership-15371.html
McGregor, D. (1960). The human side of enterprise. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.