At a high level, employee empowerment means giving employees a degree of autonomy and control over their daily tasks. This allows the organization to move some decision-making authority from management to individuals and teams. In practice, this includes:
- Allowing employees to make decisions with less oversight from management.
- Allowing employees to implement improvements or changes to business processes.
- Gathering feedback from employees and incorporating their voices into major decisions.
- Giving employees the resources, data and support they need to feel confident and mentally equipped to do these things.
Empowerment is good for employees, and good for business. Employees are more productive and less likely to change jobs if they feel empowered. Multiple academic studies have found that empowerment has a “significant positive effect” on employee productivity and that it is “negatively associated with employee strain and turnover intentions.”
Empowerment requires two-way trust between management and employees and between leadership and individual teams, as well as a psychologically safe environment where members of a group feel comfortable speaking up or making mistakes without fear of being judged or retaliated against.
Behaviors that create psychological safety and trust, which are key components of empowerment, have been linked to high-performing managers and teams. Research from our People Science team found that managers rated as “Outstanding” are more likely to do things that create a psychologically safe environment, like expressing doubt to their teams and requesting feedback. A major study at Google found that the number-one indicator of a high-performing team across all of Google was psychological safety. Empowered teams are also more resilient and better able to cope with the fast pace of change as organizations adjust to the future of work.
If better employee empowerment is on your organization’s list of goals for 2021, here are six strategies that can help you achieve it, whether you’re just starting your empowerment journey or looking for additional ways to improve it.
Empower your middle managers to make changes. Ethan Burris, a Professor of Management at the University of Texas at Austin, believes that middle managers often get squeezed – they have limited ability to make change (leadership has more of that), but they also have limited ways to get feedback and ideas for improvement (front-line employees have more of those). He urges organizations to give middle managers the appropriate authority to implement the changes they need to meet their KPIs. Also, involve them in enough discussions so they have a good grasp on the direction the company is headed. It might also be useful to develop a “listening ecosystem” to help management gather feedback from rank-and-file employees. This can include onboarding and exit surveys, a regular company census, regular pulse surveys, information from HR tickets, social listening and People Analytics data.
Abandon the 9-5 mentality. With remote work, distributed teams, and employees dealing with children at home thanks to Covid-19, it’s no longer reasonable to expect all employees to be working steadily from 9am to 5pm. Trust employees to get their work done even if hours are unconventional. Perhaps they are most productive early in the morning, or late at night. In practice, this might mean allowing employees to block off time when they’re not available or giving them control over when and how they schedule their meetings and calls. This helps build employee empowerment by demonstrating trust in them and allows them to work on whatever schedule works best for their present situation.
Consider digital/online leadership training options. Virtual leadership training can scale to provide leadership and communications training to all people leaders, while in-person training like management seminars and executive coaching is often restricted to the C-suite. Making training available to all people leaders helps empower mid-level managers by giving them additional skills and resources to tackle additional responsibilities. It can also make them more confident that they can adapt to unfamiliar situations (like working from home during a global pandemic).
Leverage People Analytics to find specific groups of employees in need. Shortly after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Uber’s People Analytics team found that employees with children younger than 5 scored lower than the company average on engagement and satisfaction metrics. In response, they added some flexibility options to help those employees balance childcare with work. The People Analytics team at global enterprise SAP realized that their employees who lived alone were struggling with loneliness. While they’d expected parents of young children to need support, they would not have realized that single employees also needed help without research from the PA team. Make sure to use People Analytics to find specific groups within your employee base that are suffering and may need help.
Bring the same zeal that you bring to customers to employees. Many companies, especially in technology, have developed an obsessive focus on their customers. To empower employees, companies should apply that same level of focus to their employees. How can they make work processes easier for their employees, or meet their needs in a way that makes them more happy, engaged and productive?
Focus on outcomes, not processes. In times of major change (such as Covid-19, a merger or acquisition, or other significant events outside of the workplace), empowering employees often means focusing less on how work gets done and creating multiple paths to success. Don’t hold employees to specific processes if those processes don’t work for their specific work situation. Dr. Brian Glaser, Director of the Google School for Leaders, argues that traditional career and business goals like three-year plans and KPIs don’t work in times of major change. He believes that it’s more helpful to focus on directions, not destinations, and allow teams and employees to be flexible about how they get there.
Give feedback through questions. Former Chief People Officer for Walton Enterprises and Cultivate advisor Rustin Richburg says that the benefits and importance of feedback are well established, but giving feedback is often avoided because people are worried about hurting other people’s feelings or the time to provide feedback is not prioritized. Instead of avoiding giving feedback, create great questions like “How do you think your presentation was received?” that help the feedback receiver reflect, think and grow. A great question creates a safe space for the feedback receiver to engage. For example, “What could you have done differently” is a question that gets the feedback receiver to reflect on their performance and “How will you prepare for future presentations?” helps them think about the future.
Employee empowerment is particularly important during the Covid-19 pandemic because it equips employees to deal with stress and changes to work process and environments. But the future of the workplace remains uncertain, and investments in empowerment now will continue to pay dividends long after the pandemic subsides.