As a CEO, managing partner and board chair, I believe the basic premise of “employee empowerment” needs to be challenged. The assumption is that leaders hold all the power and can then transfer that power to employees. But in reality, employees hold the true power of both thinking and doing. They apply their expertise and skill to shape a better future for your entire organization every day.
To achieve true empowerment, you have to allow employees to unleash their own power. As a result, they will be able to empower themselves. People are power owners regardless of their position within the organization. Employees control the customer relationship, product design and all aspects of execution. As their leader, be a stimulator and enabler — the one who facilitates the process for them to unleash their inherent powers.
The problem is not “empowerment,” but the stigma it carries. Empowerment is not the enlargement of one’s job description, but a recognition of the employee’s ownership and influence on the outcome of the activities within the job. Empowerment is not a level of responsibility given to an employee, but an acknowledgment of employees’ abilities to fulfill whatever level of responsibility they have.
Empowerment is not the establishment of agreed-upon goals and expectations; it is agreeing on the boundaries for the employees to apply their powers to deliver whatever the goals might be. Lastly, empowerment is less about motivation and more about recognition and the realization that employees have the ability and power to accomplish things themselves.
Four critical factors can help you unleash people’s powers at the workplace:
1. Transfer authority and facilitate power.
The realization that people inherently have power is the initial step in transferring authority to them. So, be ready to give up your illusion of power. Let go of control, and acknowledge that there might be a better way to do something. By transferring authority, you are not merely asking for input from your team; you are considering their contributions as a primary solution.
That said, it’s also important to prepare employees for this transfer of authority. If your team isn’t aware of the company’s vision or they have no access to tools or support in order for them to succeed, that’s a recipe for disaster. The best safeguard to this is competency.
Help your employees become more and more competent. Raise people to the level of their current competency, and then challenge them to grow even more through training and education. As the competitive world around us changes, the very definition of “competent” changes, as do the levels and boundaries of authority employees need to be effective. Your role is to provide access to tools and information and to deliver transparency. More knowledge and training leads to more power, better decisions and better outcomes.
2. Define and respect boundaries.
Empowerment refers to the mental and emotional factors that influence both employees and employers. When our powers to think and do are restrained, our ability to impact is also restrained. Empowerment is the process of unleashing employees’ power within defined boundaries, as opposed to constraining it based on job descriptions or corporate positions.
To put it simply: Your team holds the power and the ability to use it, while you hold the authority to draw the lines around their sphere of control. These boundaries clarify how they are free to exert their power autonomously, such as whether they’re free to create, make decisions, etc.
Define these boundaries based on “competency” and “trust.” Assess their knowledge and capabilities, consider your level of trust in their decisions and actions and draw the lines of authority at that limit. Then aim to slowly enlarge your circle of trust, their competency and the limits of the boundaries.
Defining effective boundaries is paramount. Respecting these boundaries, however, is much more critical. Respect their powers and the authority you transferred to them by not second-guessing their actions. Let them do what you gave them the authority to do, and honor their decisions.
3. Communicate rewards and redlines.
When it comes to understanding the dimensions of authority and the boundaries within which employees can apply their power, clarity of communication is essential. Confused communication leads to confused execution. Each employee must understand the exact level of authority they have and the rewards and redlines that are on either side of their boundaries. That clarity gives them the confidence to act and to apply their powers properly. Always remember, we are all different and have different levels of competency. One-to-many communication is not effective. In my experience, this leaves room for misunderstanding and abuse of power.
If an employee abuses their power, they’ve done what I call “redlined.” They’ve surpassed boundaries previously established, and this is when your authority comes in. Remember, don’t take control while employees are within their boundaries; that’s when they have the power. The consequences of abusing their power must also be clear, but the severity of consequences shouldn’t be related to failure or success. Redlines should be designed to define employees’ span of control, not to identify the guilty or penalize experimentation.
On the flip side, rewards should not be directly linked to the outcome of decisions but to “good and timely decision making,” to “creative thinking” and to “applied competency.” Reward them for enhancing and directing their powers effectively. When it comes to empowerment, reward the applications of their competency and not their productivity.
4. Trust and be trusted.
Trust in your employees’ abilities, or they will not trust in you, your intentions or your support. If you’ve ensured they’re competent in their roles, set specific boundaries and communicated with them clearly, there’s no reason for you not to trust them. To earn their trust, show them that their decisions will be respected and acted upon. Two-way trust is at the core of helping your team unleash their power.