How to empower employees (and why doing so is good for business)

Empowerment leadership fosters creativity and innovation in the workplace by giving employees true ownership of their work

In a global business environment fueled by innovation, empowering employees is one of the most effective ways for keeping your company agile. Today, factors like immediacy, data intelligence, and personalization lend a competitive edge to almost all business types, and these largely stem from employees feeling empowered to make decisions and take risks.

“It’s that ability to stay two (or 10) steps ahead of the pack that allows for the biggest gains,” senior lead strategist at WeWork Stephanie Park says. “The path to innovation starts with hiring the best talent who will think up new and novel solutions, putting them into action, learning, and iterating.”

Park goes on to describe the ways in which office design can help spur innovation further, but her starting point relates directly to employee empowerment: To gain the most from your employees, they must be able to innovate, create, make mistakes, and learn from them.

Obviously, there are risks associated with employee empowerment—both at an individual and an organizational level. How do you prevent employees from feeling overwhelmed? And how do you relinquish control without losing sight of your company’s identity? Here, we delve deeper into what effective employee empowerment looks like and the ways it’s implemented in the workplace. 

What is empowerment in the workplace?

Empowerment in the workplace involves enabling employees to have genuine ownership over their work, projects, and career paths. When done effectively, this leads to increased creativity and—on a larger scale—better team results. 

The potential of effective employee empowerment is best seen in a meta-analysis of 105 research samples, conducted by researchers in the UK and Australia. Their analysis of more than 30,000 individuals in 30 countries found employee empowerment leads to enhanced performance, improved organizational citizenship behavior, and heightened creativity. Other studies have found the same benefits occur at a larger scale; that team empowerment is positively related to team performance. 

What does empowerment leadership look like? 

Factors such as delegating authority, asking for input, and encouraging autonomous decision-making all contribute to employees’ perception of an empowering leader, the meta-analysis found. These employees, in turn, are more likely to involve themselves in company culture and show greater creativity than their peers. 

On a managerial level, this approach involves giving employees true ownership over assignments, avoiding micromanagement, providing constructive feedback and the appropriate resources, and delegating to develop—not to unload

“Delegating to take drudge work off your plate is often shortsighted and misses an opportunity to strengthen and empower your team,” Patrick Bosworth from the leadership development consultancy Leadership Choice says. “Instead, delegate with the intent to grow and develop the capabilities and responsibilities of your employees.”

Employees need psychological empowerment, in addition to actual empowerment 

True employee empowerment also involves deeper, organizational consideration. It’s about creating a culture in which employees not only have the capacity to make decisions—in their access to tools, policies, and procedures—they also feel empowered to do so.

To achieve this, communication of company values should be frequent and open, and boundaries, while seeming counterintuitive to employee empowerment, must be clear. 

“Even if you tell somebody, ‘Hey just do the right thing,’ they don’t know what those guardrails are,” Kate Gebo, executive vice president of human resources at United Airlines told SHRM in a recent article on employee empowerment. 

In an ongoing effort to change the company’s culture, Gebo says United Airlines employees receive frequent messaging, including from the CEO, regarding the boundaries or extent of their empowerment. Part of this comes from education about the company’s values (a factor cited by several sources as integral to empowerment), and employees are also told if their customer service decisions are “safe, caring, dependable, and efficient,” then they’re the right decisions. 

Empowerment involves taking risks and forgiving mistakes 

According to SHRM, which profiled several companies including United Airlines, empowerment is moving employees from risk-averse behaviors to doing what’s right; from a fear of making mistakes to a conviction in decision-making. It follows that forgiving mistakes and praising effort are both methods managers should use in cultivating a culture of empowerment. 

“If your team isn’t making mistakes, then you aren’t reaching high enough. But if you punish mistakes, you will encourage overly conservative behavior,” business writer and executive coach Bruce Kasanoff wrote for Forbes in 2016, adding it’s important to establish clear distinctions between acceptable mistakes and critical mistakes

Other studies have found sociopolitical support in the workplace and high-performance management tactics (giving purpose to tasks, outlining a clear career path) also contribute to psychological empowerment. This then leads to positive self-evaluation in employees, heightened job satisfaction, and enhanced performance.

Why trust is key in avoiding negative outcomes 

Two major negative outcomes frequently associated with employee empowerment involve increased employee stress and high employee turnover, according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology

This is furthered by 2016 research in The Leadership Quarterly, which says that “beyond an enabling process of empowering leadership, there is a burdening process in which specific empowering behaviors of the leader increase followers’ job-induced tension.”

It’s essential that managers know their employees, what they can handle, and how much responsibility they’re ready to take on before delegating that ownership. Trust is a huge factor in this: An employee must consider delegation as a path to empowerment and career progression, not as an outlet for their leader to shirk responsibilities.

“We found that when empowering leadership is also about mentoring and supporting employee development, this can create a trusting relationship,” the authors of the meta-analysis wrote for Harvard Business Review. This trust comes from regular and open communication, which reduces uncertainty and allows employees to “take on more risks, without feeling vulnerable.” 

Employee empowerment leads to company innovation

There’s no doubt empowering employees leads to positive outcomes for both the organization and the individual: Heightened creativity, involvement, and performance all go lengths in driving the innovation so important in today’s business environment

In order to empower employees effectively, and avoid negative outcomes like increased stress and high employee turnover, delegation needs to happen from a place of trust, and the company itself must possess a culture conducive to empowerment. Employees must not only have the means to take risks, they must also feel that making mistakes won’t lead to punishment or firing. 

For more tips on empowering and growing teams, check out all of our stories on Ideas by We.

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