Recently I’ve been seeing some pushback against the buzz around employee empowerment. Like any management trend, there is a valid critique to be voiced when an organisation talks about empowering their employees, but in reality doesn’t follow through and just jumps on the bandwagon whilst doing nothing meaningful in practice. But some CEOs and leaders take issue with the very term empowerment itself and the idea that employees need to ask for permission to do anything – in other words empowerment suggests they have no power or agency until it is explicitly given to them. They argue that this reinforces the traditional power dynamic between themselves and their employees. Whilst this is a radical, admirable approach to leading teams, having worked with larger organisations, the question that comes to my mind is:

Does empowerment reinforce an outdated paradigm, or does moving away from the term obfuscate the reality of how most organisations operate?
Of course, in an ideal world, all employees would feel they have the authority to work in the way they see fit without a nod from leadership. But, in a hierarchical organisation undergoing transformation, the inclination is to look to a higher authority when making big decisions. We cannot expect individuals to overcome the legacy of decades of management theory, practice and day-to-day experience on their own. The majority of those in management positions (and those being managed) are perhaps not yet ready for this redistribution of power.
Empowering employees cannot be a strategy on its own. Throwing people into the deep end is not always the best way for a team that wants to reap the benefits of workplace autonomy. Rather, empowerment and enablement need to work in tandem. You empower your team to control how they operate, and you enable them to do so by supporting their efforts, providing alignment and moving your own leadership style from command-and-control to coaching and role-modelling.
For those looking to empower their people and achieve the improvement in performance it promises to bring, the following pointers might be useful:
  • Understand your team: When you give people control over the way they work, a one-size-fits-all management style is out of the question. You will need to work out which employees need what levels of support. Some will be happiest with minimal input, others will need a much more hands-on approach. This is also driven by the type of work they are doing, so a situational approach is essential.
  • Prioritise accountability: Empowerment is not going to help anything without accountability. Employees need to be aware that although they now have control over the process, they are accountable for the results of that process. This is not to create a culture of blame, but to create an environment of learning and growth. Empowering employees is a performance improver, not just an employee engagement strategy.
  • Create feedback loops: Empowered employees need ongoing feedback on their processes and outcomes, but they also need the opportunity to give leaders feedback on a regular basis so they are managed in the way that suits them best.
  • Build trust: Attempting to empower teams without high levels of trust between the team and its management will lead to micro-management and team members feeling undervalued. Transparency around your own work and the thought processes that go into decisions which affect your team help to build a high-trust environment.
  • Open communication: This ties into the feedback point, but it is important that you make yourself available for your team so that they feel the lines of communication are open and they can access support when necessary. If your time is really limited, practices like holding open office hours are an option.
Included below are some interesting links on this subject, including the piece that inspired this blog post. As long as empowerment is not seen as a stand-alone action and is instead paired with removing barriers, creating alignment and increasing trust, it still has a lot to offer us in moving towards becoming digitally mature organisations.