Employee empowerment is an output, an outcome. If you start thinking of employee empowerment as an input, something you are supposed to give, you’re looking at it from the wrong angle. As an input, all the airtime will be allocated to how much to give, when, in which circumstances. Sure, you need to think about that but the real question is, what do you want to see happening that you can say ‘people are empowered’, what kind of state of mind and behaviours, and why, what benefits, if any.
The why is obviously important. Why is empowerment good? Because it is? What would happen to an organization with high levels of employee empowerment? Can you visualize it? If it is not clear, stop thinking what to give away to empower.
In this path to uncover the benefits, the argument is going to take you to the territory of ‘autonomy’, whether you call it this or not. Autonomy means a degree of control that has been gained (so yes, you now need to imagine what you will need to give away, to let go). Autonomy means self-determination, self-help, ability to conduct independently.
If you had that, people in the organization will probably also gain a lot of self-esteem and confidence. Trust levels will go up. Autonomy means increased efficiency and efficacy. Usually it also means faster reactions: markets, environment, crisis. The ‘business case’ is strong.
There are five ingredients that need to be cooked to achieve this.
Explicit ‘permission’ from leaders. There is something perhaps in people’s upbringing that makes us very dependent on ‘permissions’. Don’t underestimate the need to stress and repeat this to people. Don’t take for granted that this has been heard.
Trust. Call it how you like, but you need a good dose of this for autonomy and empowerment to be real. Are you prepared?
Resources. If people don’t have them, there is no point trumpeting empowerment. You can’t empower people to do the impossible.
Skills and competences. Equally, you can’t empower people to do something if they don’t know how.
A safety net of some sort. Within the compliance parameters that you may have, people need to be able to fail and not only survive but spread the learning.
A working definition of empowerment from the leaders perspective may sound like this: To give control to people who don’t have it, so that you can free yourself for things only you as leader can do, and, in doing so you are creating an efficient system with high levels of trust and self-esteem. All this provided that people have the skills and resources.
But the trick is to start from visualizing the kind of organization you want to see, not the theoretical view of empowerment or the things you would give away (decision rights for example). Then you need to work backwards to see what needs to happen. If you can’t visualize the benefits in the first instance, or not yet, don’t go that route. Stop talking about it.