The promise of most business leaders to empower employees has about as much credibility as a politician’s promise to bring about change
No management technique is more talked about, praised and promised than the concept of employee empowerment. The idea of empowering employees is held up by business gurus as some form of management nirvana. Rare is the business executive who does not avow devotion to empowering employees and the benefits derived from employing it. And yet, for something so universally touted as an invaluable management tool, it’s amazing how rarely it is taken out of the toolbox. The truth is, 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.
There is a simple reason for this disconnect between the lip-service praise for employee empowerment and the strong reluctance on the part of many managers to implement the concept. Most corporate managers simply do not understand what it means to empower employees. Too often, they mistakenly equate giving power to employees with a reduction in their own power. The reality is that empowering others actually enhances the power of the leader. But for those managers who have invested their whole career in an effort to achieve a position of power and are married to this misconception that empowering employees is losing power, it’s understandable why the idea of giving away any of their hard-earned power would be an anathema to them.
These leaders fail to understand the unique – seemingly conflicting – characteristics of corporate power and that is that power hoarded ultimately weakens and is lost, while power that is willingly apportioned will, in the long run, magnify the power of the one who shares power.
The real meaning of empowering employees – something rarely mentioned or understood – is not the actual transfer of power – with all its rights and responsibilities – from the manager to the employee; the manager retains all the functional power of their position. Rather, it is the sharing of the essence of power that empowers employees.
Ask yourself: What is the real value of power? Isn’t the essence of power having the ability to have some influence and control over events that will impact you and your future? Do you feel better about yourself and more involved when you believe that you have a say in what happens in your life? Do you feel a sense of appreciation and loyalty toward those who put you in a position of power?
How you answered these questions can help you understand the real reason why empowering employees is such a potentially powerful management tool. You see, the empowering of employees does not mean giving your power away; it means retaining your power, but sharing it. The manager retains all the functional power of their position, but they share the value of having power with employees, so that they can, in fact, influence the actions of the organization and feel they can make a difference. It does not mean the leader has abdicated the power to make the decision, but it does mean that others feel empowered in the process of making the decision.
Enjoying the Fruits of Your Labors
If you worked hard to attain your power and enjoy the feeling of having it, don’t you think those who work for you would enjoy the same feeling? If you are the one who makes others feel empowered, isn’t it natural for them to feel beholden to you for the power they are allowed to share?
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 talents and experience are valued in a way that can influence decisions that are made by those in power. 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.
Using Your Power to Empower Others
Once you truly understand the concept of empowering employees, you can then take the steps to make it happen: building trust, showing respect and offering consistent, open communication.
A leader empowers others 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 exhibits trust in the employees to do their job – by avoiding hovering over them and micromanaging – then the employee feels empowered to make a difference and has incentive to do the best job possible.
A leader empowers others by inviting 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.
A leader empowers others by sharing 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 dilutes their power. When information regarding vision, plans and results of an organization are consistently, openly and honestly shared with employees this “being in the know” gives them the feeling of importance and empowerment that encourages participation and ownership.
A leader empowers others by 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 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.