by Phil Manington

In a nutshell

1. What is empowerment?

Empowerment is more than simply giving people power; it is about releasing their potential. It is the creation of a culture in which managers trust their people and believe that, once they know what to do, they will get on and do it without needing to be told how to do it. On the other hand, staff will feel that they have real control over their working lives and have the power to act and work with minimum intervention from their managers. Empowerment is about

  • Letting your people get on with the job
  • Giving your staff real authority and responsibility
  • Letting them take the decisions they feel are right
  • Removing unnecessary bureaucracy
  • Encouraging them to develop and implement their ideas for improvements


2. Why is empowerment important?

Remember a time when you worked at your best? It is likely to have been a time when you were given freedom and trusted to do it your way. When you give people freedom and trust and start to build an empowerment culture, you create a different attitude among your team.

  • People are enthusiastic, positive, creative and willing to help others.
  • Empowered employees understand and believe in the company vision and generate ideas directly aimed at improving products and services.
  • Empowered employees have increased self-confidence, are keen to develop their own skills and also to find ways to make use of those skills to the company’s benefit.

As a result, businesses benefit with

  • Increased productivity
  • Reduction in production costs
  • Increased quality
  • High levels of internal cooperation and motivation
  • High levels of flexibility


3. First steps

First and foremost, you need to remember that you are asking people to change their behaviour.

  • Step 1: Gather information about current behaviour – observe people in meetings, interview them individually and together and note how they behave. Look at employee satisfaction surveys and review the systems and procedures that lay down the style of the organisation.
  • Step 2: Assess current position – use the information to determine patterns of behaviour. Do people take the initiative? Is there a blame culture? Are people flexible? What sorts of beliefs do people hold about the company, its style and its management?
  • Step 3: Establish where you want to go – create a clear vision of what you want to achieve, in a way that everyone in your team can relate to. They need to understand the big picture, but they also need to understand specifically how their job contributes to this big picture.


4. Plan how to get there

Having done your research into the current situation and the attitudes of your staff and colleagues and then created your vision, you need to plan how to achieve it.

  • Gain commitment for your vision from all involved – your boss, your colleagues and your staff.
  • Agree a set of shared values that represent the empowerment culture that you want.
  • Make changes to the supporting environment (office space, systems, processes and procedures) so that they encourage, rather than hinder, empowered behaviour.
  • Become a role model by living those values from day one – walk the talk.


5. What an empowerment culture looks like

If an empowerment culture has been introduced successfully

  • Everyone will have a very clear idea of what the organisation does, who its customers are and what its products and services are; they will understand what the company mission is and know how their job contributes to that mission.
  • Staff will feel that their job matters and will get a real sense of personal satisfaction when the company achieves its targets.
  • Typical shared values will include mutual support, collaboration, diversity of views and ideas, continuous improvement, self-development, knowledge-sharing, no blame, risk-taking, open and honest feedback, creativity and innovation.
  • Managers will be role models of company values and will create opportunities for people to grow; they will give praise and make sure people have what they need to be successful.
  • Knowledge-sharing and joint problem-solving will be standard practice.
  • People will be willing to take risks and will not fear retribution if mistakes are made.
  • Staff will be flexible in implementing new ideas or solving problems.


6. The empowering management

How your people behave will depend on how you behave as their manager. To maintain their trust and commitment, you must ensure that management behaviour is genuinely empowering and that it starts from the top.

  • Consistency essential: all managers must share the same vision and be committed to it. It is very easy to lose people’s trust if enlightened management behaviour only lasts while things are going well and old patterns emerge when things get tough.
  • Rather than trying to protect your own position, encourage your people to take responsibility and authority.
  • Look for people’s good points – praise may achieve far more than criticism.
  • Other helpful initiatives may include action learning sets, 360 degree assessments and team building efforts.
  • Treat your people as adults.


7. Making it happen – alignment

You need to establish a vision for your team that is aligned to both departmental and company goals. If you develop and maintain your own personal vision of what you want from life, your contributions to the visions of both the company and your team will be aligned with your own vision, which might include the following elements:

  • The results you need to achieve
  • The environment you aim to operate in
  • The behaviour you agree that team members will adopt
  • The capabilities of individual team members
  • The values and beliefs of the team
  • The team identity


8. Rules, systems and processes

The systems and processes of your organisation must support the principles of empowerment.

  • Your systems and procedures should encourage your team members, rather than inhibiting or obstructing empowered behaviour.
  • What needs to change to encourage the behaviour you want?
  • Which of the existing processes are necessary and which can be changed?


9. Why empowerment fails

The first step towards an empowerment culture is for the manager to give power to employees, so it is not surprising that the most common reasons for empowerment initiatives to fail are all management-based.

  • Some managers are not up to it.
  • Some managers do not want empowerment to succeed.
  • Managers don’t really understand what empowerment means.
  • Managers don’t appreciate the scale of the task.
  • Managers have agreed responsibilities and authority with staff, but continue to micro-manage the work.
  • Managers fail to create an environment that encourages empowered behaviour.
  • Managers blame staff when things go wrong.
  • Systems and procedures work against empowered behaviour.


10. Self-directed teams

Once an empowerment culture is firmly established, there is the possibility of further development – of handing over the responsibility for managing to the teams themselves.

  • Firstly, self-managed teams of employees work together and are given goals and objectives by senior management, but are responsible for deciding how they go about achieving those goals.
  • Secondly, self-directed teams additionally take on responsibility for setting their own goals.

Benefits claimed by companies who use self-managed and self-directed teams:

  • Increased productivity
  • Higher quality products and services
  • Greater flexibility
  • Faster response to change
  • Increased employee commitment
  • The ability to attract and retain the best people


11. How empowered is your team?

Self-assessment questionnaire to help you establish areas where you want to develop, divided into

  • Questions for you
  • Questions for your team