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Empowerment is an approach to management which is based on the belief that workers’ abilities are often under-used and that, employees can and will make a greater contribution if they are empowered to do so and accept the greater responsibility that this brings. Empowerment can reveal and develop people’s talents, bring them closer to the centre of workplace action, and give them greater power and authority to innovate, participate in problem-solving and use their initiative. Whilst there are clear benefits for employees, empowerment is an important management tool which will not only make the most of team members’ talents, but will also save managers’ time.

Empowerment gives greater freedom to managers as they will spend less time making minor day-today decisions, and can devote more time to dealing with the “big” issues and planning for the future. Empowerment is a process whereby employees are given greater discretion to make decisions and to act on those decisions without referring to their superiors. Authority and control are shared to enable the organisation or department to function more effectively. Empowerment requires the creation of a climate, atmosphere and culture that employees find safe and motivating and in which responsibility and accountability rest with the individual doing the job. It is also important to ensure that employees are provided with sufficient information and resources to carry out their empowered responsibilities. Empowerment is more than delegation. It should be a sincere attempt to redistribute power and decision-making responsibilities that strips away unnecessary bureaucracy, while retaining agreed boundaries and reporting limits. The introduction of an empowering style of management requires careful preparation and guidelines. If implemented successfully, the commitment and motivation of employees will be given a new lease of life, as they take greater ownership of situations, generate their own solutions and produce their own ideas for improving products, services and performance. Managers who are able to create an environment of trust, and energise, support and coach their people, are the key to successful empowerment.

Identify why you want to introduce empowerment Clarify what you mean by empowerment and what you expect to get out of it. Is it an improved consultative process? Is it more active delegation? Is it extended responsibilities – with authority – for problem-solving and decision-making? Is your principal concern to develop people and expand their job capabilities? Or are you looking for improvements to the bottom line? Discuss what you have in mind and check whether the expectations of colleagues and senior managers correspond with your own. This will lead to unified and integrated outcomes.

Recognise the barriers to empowerment Barriers may include:

  • organisational culture – many organisations are inherently controlling, bureaucratic and unreceptive to change
  • psychological factors – some managers may feel that empowerment means losing control, while some employees may not want increased responsibilities. Some employees may be scared of moving out of their comfort zone
  • rigid routines – these often encourage people not to take responsibility
  • specialisation – some employees may have a very specialised or narrow job role which may lead to them seeing new responsibilities and ways of working as a threat
  • poor information sharing – some managers may be unaware or uncertain of what their teams know or have access to.

Be aware of the need for the right culture There is no formula for the right culture, but it is important to recognise that some organisational cultures are more conducive than others to enabling employees to make a positive contribution, free from fear or blame. Consider the following archetypes, adapted from the work of Charles Handy (Understanding organizations, 4th ed, 1993) and Edgar Schein (Organizational culture and leadership, 1985):

a) the Role culture – with defined functions and specialists, and set procedures and job descriptions. This is suitable in a stable environment.

b) the Task culture – job- or project-oriented, concerned to bring together the right resources and people and let them get on with the job. Reliant on the formation – and dissolution – of teams, the task culture is better equipped than the role culture to respond to – and generate – change.

c) the Fear culture, where:

  • decisions – and truth – come ultimately from the more senior people
  • relationships are basically vertical and linear
  • each person has a niche which cannot be invaded
  • exchange takes place by agenda and prearranged appointment
  • there is deference to rank and authority
  • people use the formal communication process to ‘cover their backs’.

d) the Trust culture where:

  • ideas come from individuals
  • people are responsible and motivated
  • there is an air of informality and few closed doors
  • people can make mistakes without fear of blame or recrimination
  • there are constant opportunities for learning.

There are no magic tricks or techniques for changing an organisation’s culture. It is both a lengthy and an expensive process. Clearly, however, the culture of some organisations is more conducive to change, including empowerment initiatives, than others. A task or trust culture may well make the introduction of empowerment easier. In a role or fear culture it may be better to introduce empowerment in stages. Here it may also be useful to consider the work of theorists on change, such as Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Kurt Lewin.

Critically analyse leadership style(s) in the organisation An important aspect of having the right culture for empowerment is managers who adopt an appropriate leadership style. Empowerment may well involve making changes to your leadership style, so looking at some of the theories about how people lead may be helpful. The leadership continuum developed by Tannenbaum and Schmidt plots the relationship between the manager and their team on a sliding scale, moving from a situation where the manager makes a decision and announces it to the team to a situation where team members make decisions within certain defined limits. Tannenbaum and Schmidt suggest that leaders and managers should be aiming to move up this scale over time, thereby delegating more power to their employees. Like workplace culture, leadership style is not something an individual can change overnight. However, it is clear that moving higher up the continuum will enable staff to be better empowered.

Establish the boundaries Although empowerment allows staff greater autonomy, there should be a clear indication of how far this goes (e.g. to the levels of consultation, participation or full decision-making). Set clear limits to levels of responsibility and autonomy. Wherever the cut-off is positioned, ensure that a mechanism is retained which allows staff to refer problems and suggestions upwards where necessary. Once the boundaries have been agreed and defined, reinforce them in practice by ‘case law’, so that team members learn when to do without telling, when to do and tell, and when to ask before doing.

Raise awareness Before the process of empowerment begins, it is essential to raise people’s awareness about what it entails. Set up meetings and discussion groups to let everyone know what is happening, why the process is being undertaken, what is expected of them, and what the results are likely to be.

Reassure those involved and win support from others Some people are bound to be more comfortable with empowerment than others. In order to understand your employees’ motivation better, it may be useful to think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory. This identifies five broad categories of needs which motivate people – from basic physiological needs to the need for self-actualisation – feeling personal satisfaction for your achievements. Initially, empowerment is likely to appeal to employees who are at this highest level of motivation, so it is important that you also consider how to win support from other team members. Employees who are used to doing only what they are told, or to carrying out only a very narrow range of tasks, may feel threatened by or suspicious of a big change in culture. Allow people to air their anxieties and ensure they are comfortable with the processes involved. Good, internal channels of communication are essential for empowerment, so keep these open and effective.

Evaluate current responsibilities and carry out an audit of staff skills Do a job analysis. Find out what people do in their present jobs, and check it against both formal job descriptions and the implicit knowledge and skills used to fulfil the job role. Look out for areas where their jobs can be extended or where they are already unofficially empowering themselves. Investigate the hidden talents employees may have. Ask people about themselves (do not just assume you know all about them). Draw up a ‘talent rota’ of currently under-used talents, including those currently used outside the workplace. Think about how the opportunities now available fit with the skills and experience your employees currently have.

Ensure employees have sufficient information and resources to take control Responsibility for customers, complaints and operational changes will need to be thought through, as will new responsibilities, and the levels and types of resources needed to allow people to carry out their jobs. You will know that empowerment is working when customers become more satisfied, bottom-line results start to show through, and people:

  • seem able to run things without your daily/hourly involvement
  • show initiative and take ownership of ‘their’ customers
  • don’t require you to solve ‘their’ problems.

Agree performance objectives and measures Giving people real responsibility and resources to complete tasks is one thing – setting them adrift with these is quite another. Empowerment involves agreeing and establishing with employees the objectives and measures needed to ensure excellent customer service or a performance improvement that is also efficient and effective.

Launch the initiative Employees may need a good deal of support in the early stages if they are afraid to take on extra responsibility – but support has to be distinguished from excessive supervision. Managers, too, may need careful handling, as some may perceive empowerment of their team as a threat to their own control rather than an opportunity for improved processes and services. Once the ground has been prepared, empowerment can start to take effect. Encourage the process by implementing or acting on new ideas that are suggested. To ensure success, it is essential to publicise what is happening and to recognise and reinforce examples of good practice. Sometimes, you may find it best to start in one area where managers are known to be supportive and where quick results can be expected. This will help to help build momentum by showing how empowerment can work and demonstrate your commitment to it.

Monitor and support developments It is vital that employees feel supported in their day-to-day work to ensure that empowerment succeeds in the long-term. Regular meetings and one-to-ones can be used to check on progress, give and receive feedback, and gather ideas and support. If empowered employees have done their job well, this will reinforce their good performance. If they have fallen short in some way, this is an opportunity to discuss how future work could be improved. You should be specific and focus on the task not the person when giving feedback, especially if it is negative. Consider how to maintain communication on an ongoing basis and how to highlight successes in order to build momentum and keep the initiative going. Be prepared to live with mistakes. As long as the same errors don’t keep happening, mistakes can be useful learning experiences for the future.

Acknowledgements: CMI Management Direct