Empowering Employees – Making the Most of Your Human Capital
By Aoife Harrington May 2010
Times are tough. Economies are faltering. Businesses are under increasing pressure. Now is the time for organisations to capitalize on their strengths, particularly their human capital, and one way of doing this is through employee empowerment. Empowerment is a buzz word that has been bandied about for many years – overused and misused in many contexts – but what exactly is it and how can it be best achieved in order to make sure that your business makes the most of its human capital?
Fundamentally, empowerment is about recognising and releasing into the organisation the power that people already have within them in terms of their experience, knowledge and motivation. It represents a move away from traditional top down models of management and involves a controlled transfer of authority, responsibility and power to people at different levels of the organisation. Essentially empowerment allows employees to think, act, function and make decisions in autonomous ways.
Empowerment has been found to be associated with significant organisational gains, including an increase in work commitment and job satisfaction, commitment to organisational goals, better team performance and increased product and service quality. It has also been found to have a positive impact on employee turnover and employee stress levels as it promotes greater role clarity. Giving power to your people will not only make them happier and more productive, it will have benefits across the organisation, including the identification of high potential performers and freeing up more time for business leaders to focus on strategic thinking, more complex problem solving and others executive leadership matters.
Organisations often take for granted, however, that employees will welcome and indeed be committed to empowerment. It’s not just a case of convincing employees that they are powerful, however, employees must consider themselves to have gained some power. One of the most important messages for organisations today is that it is individuals that must make the choice of whether to be empowered or not, leaders simply create the environment in which individuals can make that choice.
8 Steps to Creating an Empowerment Environment
- 1. Improve Communication:
- Progressively sharing vital and often sensitive company information will develop a sense of mutual trust between management and employees and will facilitate employees making informed, independent decisions.
- Communication must be two-way: it is not only important for management to keep employees in the loop on what’s going on in the business but they should be willing to listening to staff also.
- Upward communication provides a means for employees to express their views and grievances openly to management.
- Getting employee to share their points of view can be encouraged by using suggestion boxes, brain storming, focus groups and quality circles and the output from this should be evaluated and implemented, by management, as appropriate.
- 2. Provide Training & Learning Opportunities:
- Organisations must remember that people often don’t have the necessary skills or capabilities to deal with the new responsibilities that have been bestowed on them through empowerment and thus employees need to be helped to become more competent by providing regular and continuous training.
- Employees should also be given the opportunity to network with one another and to shadow the work of others so that they can build their level of confidence and their skills repertoire.
- Since empowerment is also about seizing opportunities for personal growth and self-fulfilment, organic approaches to training should also focus on helping employees to gain a sense of ownership in the organisation and provide opportunities for personal growth and change within the empowered work role.
- 3. Change the Corporate Culture:
- It is fundamentally important that mangers do not just pay lip service to the idea of empowerment. Before the concept is even introduced to employees, the organisation need to get buy in from managers and to educate them on what exactly empowerment is.
- This process should begin by defining what exactly empowerment is and establishing policies and strategies on how it can be introduced across the organisation.
- Barriers that limit employees from acting in empowered ways will also need to be identified and removed.
- 4. Adapt the Organisational Structure:
- Empowerment does not mean that organisational leaders are no longer responsible for performance but rather that they are now responsible for creating a culture in which employee contribution is valued and cultivated.
- Management at all levels will need to be made aware that while strong leadership will be important at the outset when introducing employee empowerment, mangers will need to gradually adapt to more participative management styles to support the empowerment process going forward.
- Provision of training will be important in this regard and should focus on how to flatten organisational structures, move on from micro managing employees and increases employee access to the information required to make autonomous decisions.
- 5. Set Boundaries:
- It is important that although employees are delegated control and autonomy, clear boundaries are set.
- Managers must be open and honest about what decisions employees can make and which they cannot.
- Employees should be taught how to set realistic, specific and measurable goals.
- Accountability needs to be passed down to employees as well as control.
- 6. Reward Employee Participation:
- In order to prevent employees from feeling that empowerment is being used as a front for getting them to do more for less, the organisation’s reward system needs to be changed
- Contingent rewards systems including pay for performance and profit sharing initiatives help to forge a sense of ownership between the employee and the organisation.
- Individual performance-based reward-systems also work well in empowered organisations.
- Managers must remember to reward employees in visible ways and provide them with continuous, constructive feedback on their performance.
- Praise for accomplishment and acknowledgement of effort will also ensure that employees feel rewarded for taking on additional responsibilities.
- 7. Support Empowered Employees:
- A safe environment should be created where people can learn to cope with their responsibilities and try out new skills.
- Employees should not be punished for making mistakes but rather they should be urged to learn from them and do better next time.
- Provision of support for the integration of employee work and family lives
- Developing networks between employees which will help to build wider and stronger relationships at work which will be a source of social support.
- 8. Support the Power Sharers:
- Organisations must not forget to support the power sharers in empowerment initiatives, which, more often than not, are middle managers. Often middle managers are most resistant to empowerment initiatives as they fear that the organisation will no longer need them and that they will be made redundant.
- Organisations should try to increase the scope of delegation of responsibilities from senior management to middle management
- Training should be provided for middle managers in how to effectively manage and lead empowered teams
Although difficult to define, empowerment is a concept that most organisations must at least consider if they wish to retain their competitive edge. It is important that organisations recognise that empowerment will not happen overnight but that it will take some time before employees feel truly empowered. By training employees in the necessary skills, improving lines of communication, flattening the organisational structure, creating a culture of participation and supporting the power sharers, the process of empowerment is likely to be accelerated and collective organisational success will ensure.
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Aoife Harrington is a Consultant Organisational Psychologist at DavittCorporatePartners – Corporate Psychologists