Power To The People? Don’t Hold Your Breath!
Much like the perennial machinations of politicians who promise to bring about “change” to make things better, business leaders and their sycophant HR people espouse the desire to “empower employees” to make the organization better. Unfortunately, the pledges of politicians and business leaders often far outstrip their performance. If there is a popular management concept more honeycombed with hypocrisy, myth and duplicity than the idea of “empowering employees,” one would be hard pressed to find it.
When it comes to business leaders, the reason for this disconnect is simple: Most top managers do not have a clear definition of the concept of “empowering employees.” Too often, leaders equate giving power to employees with a reduction in their own power. When shackled with this flawed concept of what employee empowerment, it is understandable why those who have invested their whole careers to achieve the pinnacle of power would view with anathema the idea of giving any of it away. That’s a huge mistake because sharing power will, in the long run, actually magnify their power.
Starting Off on the Right Foot
The real meaning of empowering employees – something rarely mentioned or understood – is to share power with employees so that they can, in fact, influence the actions of the organization and feel they make a difference in overall performance.
The truth is that most employees really don’t want the risk and responsibility that comes with actual power, but they do want the feeling that they can make a difference in the organization and that their talent and experience is valued in a way that can influence decisions that are made by those in power.
In a corporate culture based upon empowering employees, the leaders retain the power of their position, but freely share the benefits and rewards of influence and making a difference that comes with power. As a result, the power of the leaders who follow this philosophy is boosted because the employees so empowered – with the ability to influence and make a difference – have a strong incentive to follow and support the leader who is the source of their empowerment.
That means more than just talk. The leader must also recognize that talking about empowering employees, but acting in a way that makes those words as hollow as a politician’s promise and do more damage than good.
The Times they are A-Changin’
But there are even more practical reasons for empowering employees. Business in this country has shifted from the task and process environment of manufacturing into a more complex age of knowledge. No longer is it enough to have a strong, capable executive at the top, who is skilled at managing the tangible assets of a company. To be competitive in the multifaceted age of knowledge the leader must be able to identify, develop, motivate and marshal the knowledge, skills, experience and acumen of all members of the group. In today’s competitive world, knowledge has become the intellectual capital of a company. No one person can have all the knowledge; and for a company to be successful there must be an environment that consistently nurtures and harvests the intellectual capital possessed by the employees and invest it in the future of the company. The only way to accomplish this is to empower employees.
Tips for Empowering Your Employees
The key to adopting a leadership style that empowers the followers is first to understand the concept (and its misunderstandings) and then take actions that properly implement it. Doing so is not always easy, but it is simple and the rewards are well worth the effort. It will be easier for the typical, insecure business leader to take the first step toward empowering employees when they can understand that this concept involves the sharing of power, not the transfer of power.
Once you truly understand the concept of empowering employees, the leader can then take the steps to make it happen: building trust, showing respect and offering consistent, open communication.
A leader builds trust by trusting others. Trust is built when an employee is assigned a task and then given the support, tools and authority to complete it. If a leader does not exhibit such trust in the employees to do their job – by hovering over them and micromanaging – then the employees have no incentive to trust that the leader will empower them to make a difference.
Invite input. When a leader discusses issues with employees, asks questions, seeks input and asks for recommended solutions, it is a clear sign that the leader respects the knowledge and experience of the employee. Such action empowers the employee to participate and be involved. This approach does not transfer the power to make the final decision to the employee, but it does empower them to influence the final decision.
Share Information. Information is power, and being “in the know” is always equated with power. So much so that many leaders seek to hoard and hide information lest its dissemination will dilute their power. When information regarding vision, plans and results of an organization are consistently, openly and honestly shared with employees then “being in the know” gives them the feeling of empowerment that encourages participation and ownership.
Other steps to empower employees include enabling the knowledge of employees to be accessed and used, recognizing and rewarding the accomplishments of employees, being accessible and building open relationships with employees, showing concern for the future of the employee by investing in the development of their knowledge and skills and by creating a transparent culture that liberates the potential of the knowledge possessed by the employee in a way that allows them to feel that they do have the power to make a difference.
Any one of these actions regarding, trust, respect, communication and the other elements of empowering employees can be used by a leader without giving up one iota of real power; and yet by sharing the benefits of having power the leader empowers others.
And the Moral of the Story …
If a leader is going to seek to empower employees it is first important to understand exactly what that means. Many leaders are under the misconception that empowering others equates to a loss of their own power. Just the opposite is the reality. The more a leader empowers others, the more power they will acquire. The true essence of empowering employees is not abdicating power, but in sharing the benefits of power which boil down to having influence within the organization and being in a position to make a difference. And, that’s the difference between talking about empowering employees and actually benefiting from the effort to do so.