by Jason Richmond, CEO and Chief Culture Officer at Ideal Outcomes, Inc.
Every day, your employees make decisions and take actions that affect your organization’s prospects and profitability. Much has been said and written about how to keep employees interested and engaged, but in our experience, one of the most effective is purposeful empowerment.
Purposeful empowerment is a leadership strategy that focuses on gradually building employees’ skills and confidence so they can achieve more. When people feel empowered, they affect those around them; they become models of what’s possible, inspiring others to find their own paths to self-empowerment. Purposeful empowerment can infuse your workforce with a new sense of focus and purpose, delivering outcomes that speak to the bottom line.
Steps to Empowering Your Workforce
Employee empowerment won’t be achieved overnight but instead built gradually over time using a combination of the following approaches:
Relinquish Control and Lead From Behind
In his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” Nelson Mandela shared wisdom on leadership: “A leader. . .is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they’re being directed from behind.” This metaphor crystallizes what true employee empowerment requires ̶ knowing when to let go and “lead from behind.”
Many leaders struggle to relinquish control and give employees full autonomy over projects. Some think they’ve risen to their position because they know how to spot every opportunity and solve every problem. The truth is, it’s not their role to know everything!
When you delegate a task to a team member, accept that the way they do things (and the outcomes) likely won’t be the same as if you’d done everything yourself. And you might be pleasantly surprised! People can approach projects differently than you would and achieve the same or better results! Too often, managers and leaders take back power midway through projects because they observe this, making them nervous. Micromanagement means missing out on opportunities to move quickly and innovate with people who should own the challenge of transforming your business.
Of course, you can’t delegate randomly. Evaluate people’s talents, skills, and interests. Someone might have great potential but not be quite ready just yet. Giving someone assignments that don’t align with their passions or desires is unlikely to deliver the results you hoped for. Also, respect your employees’ time: somebody might be fully capable of taking on a strategic project or expanding their remit but too overloaded with other responsibilities. When you empower employees, it’s vital to ensure they’re capable of the work, want to do it, and have enough time for it.
Turn Mistakes into Learning Experiences
Even if an employee is struggling with a task or project, taking back power can be counterproductive. It sends a message to the employee (and those around them) that nothing less than perfection is good enough. This can quickly lead to feelings of resentment and disengagement. A better, more encouraging approach is to recognize the employee’s progress and, if necessary, offer them coaching to help them get back on track.
MIT professor Ed Schein advocates an approach of “humble inquiry” that involves showing sincerity and interest in the other person, conveying empathy for their situation, expressing a desire to help them, and letting them talk for a minimum of 80% of the time. Stay positive, even if any missteps or errors happen along the way. Employees who feel that honest mistakes will be forgiven will try harder, and that bit of extra effort often leads to great results.
Initiate Frequent, Honest, and Open Communication
We live in a world where the proliferation of technology and social media has fostered a sea of superficial connections. But humans innately want to build genuine bonds and meaningful relationships with the people and institutions they trust.
As Warren Buffett, American business magnate, investor, and philanthropist, famously said: “Trust is like the air we breathe. When it’s present, nobody really notices. But when it’s absent, everybody notices.” Building trust in the workplace requires transparency. Your employees will never be truly empowered if they’re missing information that can help them act in your company’s and your customers’ best interests.
Communication between leadership and employees must be open and honest to build mutual trust and make people feel safe. Keep your team informed about the company’s progress, results, and challenges. They’ll appreciate your transparency, trust you, and, in turn, be open with you.
Let Ideas Flow Up and Down
One effective means to foster a culture of empowerment is to ensure that ideas are exchanged up and down the chain of command. Encourage employees to share feedback on what they believe is working and give them a safe space to suggest improvements.
Feedback and idea sharing can be done formally and informally. You could host regular in-person and virtual roundtables where employees can share their ideas in an open forum and set up a confidential “solution box” where people can contribute their ideas or offer constructive criticisms (together with proposed solutions.) Ideas and criticisms from the people who know your business will likely be some of the most insightful, innovative, and creative, contributing to your company’s evolution.
Establish Clear Standards of Accountability
While delegation is a foundational element of purposeful empowerment, you also need to set clear accountability standards to collectively reach your goals. Setting clear goals and expectations upfront is critical to holding employees accountable. It’s a good idea to put these in writing so people fully understand your directions and have a chance to ask any questions.
Set Clear Paths for Career Growth
Empowering your workforce also means setting clear paths for personal and professional growth and development. Today’s workers care about more than just the size of their paycheck. When employees don’t have a clear path to advancement in your organization, they’ll gradually become bored, disengaged, and start looking for more challenging opportunities elsewhere.
According to recent research, employees who lack visibility into internal career opportunities are 61% more likely to have plans to quit their jobs. If you want to empower your employees, you must give them the means to grow.
Master the Art of Purposeful Empowerment
Long-term business success starts by looking inside your business to your biggest investment and primary driver: your people. Purposefully empowering your employees can have far-reaching positive effects on your organization, including the bottom line.