empowermentEmpowerment means letting go of the authority to make certain decisions. This is good management practice but also about facing reality - that modern employees won't accept jobs where they have no say in their day to day decisions.

Still, old habits die hard and some managers will struggle for awhile to change their roles from prime decision maker to facilitator. Empowerment is not the same thing as employee engagement but it does help employees feel more engaged. Several factors contribute to effective empowerment. Your organizational culture must support empowerment. It won't work if managers feel threatened by a loss of authority, for example. There is also the question of what to empower and when. In addition, self-awareness is essential to be sure that you are not actually disempowering employees.

Culture and Empowerment 

Does your culture support empowerment?

Empowerment can fail if the organization's culture prevents managers from letting go. Some managers might feel threatened by a loss of power or less ability to control their department’s performance. In addition, risk taking may be encouraged while mistakes are still punished. Empowerment entails a total culture change...from top to bottom. Role models and success stories should be celebrated.

Managers who identify with their ability to solve problems and make decisions may lose a prime source of their identity and job satisfaction if they over empower employees. Cultures that support empowerment encourage managers to be catalysts, facilitators, coaches, enablers and developers of others rather than merely decision making authorities. 

Empower People To Do What? 

How to do their job OR what their job should be about? Discretion in HOW to do the job is easiest but provides less latitude for deciding WHAT to do. Creativity will be more likely if employees have some say in WHAT they might contribute. Handling customers and urgent problems are two commonly empowered tasks - but people have much more to offer.

If employees are your partners, they should be empowered to make more strategic contributions. Empowering means giving power - not just to DO things but to participate in major decisions - to be listened to with respect. Empowerment is also the natural shift of power - to knowledge, away from position. 

When Best To Empower 

Empower when...

Employees are close to customers, when innovation is critical, when technology is complex, when processes are changing rapidly, when the environment is uncertain, when employees want growth, responsibility and development, when initiative has a high payoff value, when employees need motivating, when the individuals concerned are ready, when close supervision is impossible, when the boss can genuinely let go and when the boss is supportive and a good coach.

Consider not empowering when...

Consistency and uniformity are essential, when costs need to be minimized and tightly controlled, when operations are too routine and need to be standardized, when errors are too costly, when employees are untrained or otherwise unready, when employees are too dependent and lack confidence, when individual initiative may be too costly, when motivation is already strong the way things are, when close supervision is essential, when the organization's culture is not supportive and when the managers are not ready to let go. 

Disempowering Employees

Do you make sure YOU handle the important issues or insist on approving actions they could take on their own? Do you criticize them for not consulting you on decisions they could make? Do you offer your answers instead of drawing solutions out of them? Do you occupy most of the spotlight most of the time?

Do you lead all your meetings and cross functional exchanges or see your role as making decisions and having the answers? Do you feel you need to look after or protect your subordinates or show discomfort or disapproval when they disagree with you?

Do you jump on them for mistakes but forget to praise their successes, ridicule their ideas as unworkable or generally like to see things done your way?

The Reality of Empowerment

Empowerment is viewed as authority that managers grant employees The reality is that many front line employees already have a lot of power. It is important to recognize their power and motivate them to channel it productively. Employees who serve customers have the power to make or break a business.

Empowering them means acknowledging how powerful they already are. The same applies to knowledge workers whose innovations can build your business. In the old days when most employees did only routine jobs, they had no power other than what managers condescended to grant them - this was called job enrichment!

Now, employees are doing the critical jobs and managers are increasingly facilitators or coaches who need to get out of the way and let powerful employees do the business. This is a profound shift in organizational power.

Nevertheless, it is hard for employees to fully utilize their power because the other reality is that managers still have the power to promote or fire them. So, both sides have their own sort of power and today the balance is more even than it used to be. An even balance of power implies partnership, not empowerment.

The catch is that partners expect an even balance of reward distribution as well. The key is not so much to empower employees who are already powerful but to motivate them to channel their power to maximize business results.