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Employee Empowerment


 

The Value of Empowerment

Part 1 of 2

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Empowerment – another over used buzzword and misused concept in today’s business. But what does empowerment mean and how can businesses and employees benefit from empowerment?

 

What does Empowerment mean?

According to Wikipedia: “In the sphere of management and organizational theory, "empowerment" often refers loosely to processes for giving subordinates (or workers generally) greater discretion and resources: distributing control in order to better serve both customers and the interests of employing organizations.”

Many businesses have empowerment programs that have all the good intentions but fail on two accounts. The first is actually empowering employees. Rhetoric may be spoken and intentions may be good, but control and power are still maintained by managers and executives. Second, they lack initiative to train and coach employees to take control. You cannot wave your magic wand and say ”you are now empowered” and expect employees to change. As well, saying “yes, our employees are empowered” does not make it so.

Also from Wikipedia: “Empowerment in the workplace is regarded by critics as more a pseudo-empowerment exercise, the idea of which is to change the attitudes of workers, so as to make them work harder rather than giving them any real power.”

How many of you recognize the latter definition from Wikipedia over the former?

 

Authority and Power

In order to understand what empowerment is, we must first understand a couple of other concepts.

First is authority. There are two types of authority - formal and informal. Philip Van Houser[i] (2003) defines these in his “Leadership Journey” series:

Formal Authority

The organizational power that comes with the position one holds.

Informal Authority

The personal influential power that comes as a result of one person voluntarily choosing to support or follow another.

Second is power. Again, Van Houser defines:

Power

The ability to grant, withhold or withdraw something someone else wants or needs.

So empowerment, or “to empower someone” is to willingly and knowingly grant our official power to others.

Let’s put these concepts to work through example.

An employee comes to you with a request for new equipment. As a manager, you ask a few questions in regard to why this equipment is needed, what it will cost, what is the benefit of having it, and what is the detriment of not having it. You then make a decision.

“Okay, go ahead and get the new equipment.” You’ve just used your formal authority and power to grant something someone else wants or needs. Not only that, you’ve emotionally satisfied that employee simply by (implicitly or explicitly) agreeing with his or her decision on the need and justification for that new equipment.

What if your decision is “well, let’s wait”. Possibly because you want to wait for the next budget cycle or for the results of the next marketing campaign or any number of reasons. You have just used your power to withhold something someone else wants or needs. Now that employee is discouraged, upset, or even angry.

The emotional response of these examples pales in comparison when you withdraw something someone else already has. You can be assured that he or she is going to be disappointed, distressed and frustrated and these emotions can be very difficult to deal with.

We must first understand power before we can understand empowerments. It’s also important to understand the emotional responses from our use of power.

 

Empowerment

Empowerment is “willingly and knowingly granting our official power to another”. Or to give up that official power to grant withhold or withdraw to someone else.

Empowerment is using your power, not to withhold or withdraw, but to grant to another the power that you’ve worked to obtain.

Of course, as said before, you can’t just wave your magic wand and say, “you are now empowered” and expect it to happen. Empowerment takes training and coaching. Especially for employees who are not used to being empowered, they will likely be very hesitant.

What happens when you try to empower a group of employees who have never been empowered before? It depends on their comfort level. It’s much easier to say “no, I’m more comfortable (and safer) to wait to be told what to do; to wait for instruction”. Then again, others may be eager to jump at the chance. They know what needs to be done, why wait?

Empowerment happens at the individual level but only works in a team environment. Employees who do not value team success or are only interested in personal success are more likely to be disinterested in empowerment or worse, will abuse newly obtained power.

Coaching and training is needed at all levels to overcome the potential disadvantages. Managers must learn to let go of their official power. They must learn to coach employees on the appropriate use of the power handed to them in regard to the overall business objectives. Managers must learn to trust their employees even, at times, when they disagree with their decisions. They must focus on outcomes and results rather than procedures.

Employees must learn that their power is not to be abused. They must learn to work together as a team and to make decisions directed towards team success. They must be willing to accept and learn to mitigate risks. Employees must be able to trust their manager, their team members, and themselves.

 

Benefits of Empowerment

Empowerment involves a conceptual mindset geared towards assuring success rather than preventing failure. This is certainly beyond the typical "blame culture" that blocks employees from believing in themselves and their judgments.

People are our most important asset and our most underutilized resource. Independent entrepreneurship and initiative lead to higher levels of employee engagement, increased employee contribution including innovation and productivity, and fewer conflicts due to involvement in the decision making process.

Many organizations are driven by tangible metrics such as profits, output and quality. The benefits of empowerment and involvement tend to be underestimated due to the difficulties of measuring their effects in quantifiable ways.

 

Conclusion

From Wikipedia: Research suggests that the opportunity to exercise personal discretion/choice (and complete meaningful work) is an important element contributing to employee engagement and well-being. There is evidence… that initiative and motivation are increased when people have a more positive attributional style. This influences self-belief, resilience when faced with setbacks, and the ability to visualize oneself overcoming problems. The implication is that “empowerment” suits some more than others, and should be positioned in the broader context an “enabling” work environment.

Empowerment is an important concept and practice in any business. What we’ve covered in this article are simple explanations of authority and power that will, hopefully, lead to a better understanding of empowerment.

In part 2, we’ll talk more about empowerment at work and the six levels of empowerment.

 

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[i] Phillip Van Hooser, MBA,CSP, 2003, 
The Leadership Journey: Practical Skills for Leadership Success.

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