What Does Empower Your Employees Mean?

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10-06-2013

8 min read

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How Do You Truly Empower Your Employees?

Empowerment is a key enabler for organisational agility. To you and me, that simply means the organisation is a living, breathing, evolving entity that is able to learn, improve and grow from experiences.

Today, leadership gurus use the term “empowerment” freely as a one stop solution to any organisation’s talent and growth issues. But what does empowerment mean?

In our conversation with one other, we examine the topic of empowerment from two perspectives – firstly from the viewpoint of the company, and secondly from the viewpoint of employees (particularly Gen-Y talent).

The need to empower

“A company’s and country’s success is tied to productivity. I believe that the companies and the countries that win in the decade and century ahead will be those that get more output for less input… To be the best in everything you do, you have to engage and involve every mind in your enterprise. The old command and control structures built around military structures of the past don’t engage every mind and involve every person. You have to have a fluid, boundariless organisation.” – Jack Welsh

This quote from Neutron Jack, famed CEO of GE in the 1990s, succinctly captures why an empowered organisation is no longer a choice, but a necessity. With the speed of technology and customer demands being what it is today, there is no way that organisations can cope with expectations by relying purely on a leadership pool of one – the CEO. Or even with the C–suite pool lending its weight.

No, the giants of today (like Google and Apple) are successful because they have tapped the secret potential that stares at us everyday yet remains an unlit tinder box – an empowered workforce.

On the surface, it’s not rocket science. Empowering employees basically means a management practice of sharing information, rewards, and power with employees so that they can take initiative and make decisions to solve problems and improve service and performance.

Empowerment is based on the idea that giving employees skills, resources, authority, opportunity, motivation, as well as holding them responsible and accountable for outcomes of their actions, will contribute to their competence and satisfaction.

And of course, an increase in competence and satisfaction will usually translate to a higher productivity level. But from the organisation’s perspectives, there needs to be some caution: Never mistake empowerment for an absence of direction. The leader needs to create the vision and clarify goals.

A lack of clarity about desired outcomes and role expectations is disempowering.

In an empowered organisation, there needs to be a sense of responsibility in the actions taken by employees. Today it is becoming a buzz word amongst corporates, but how many are actualising it?

It’s not that easy for an organisation to empower its people. First of all, the organisation needs huge will power to “decentralise”, to distribute decision-making to as close to the action as appropriate.

This means giving employees the authority to make timely decisions but with a certain amount of autonomy and tolerance for mistakes.

How many leaders are comfortable with this proposition? People are not motivated to change when they don’t have authority to do anything with what they have learned. But the risk is also substantial for the organisation. It’s always a balancing act.

Critical to empowering the organisation is to create alignment – an empowered organisation aligns its goals, vision, processes and the roles of its employees with each other, amongst the many other complexities that come together.

But here again, we have a slight bump on the road. With the wave of Gen-Yers and their “three-year” career paths that seem to be the trend these days, how does an organisation empower via alignment when the rate of turnover is so high and frequent?

These questions keep management awake at night and call for deeper introspection.

Why employees crave empowerment

Talented Gen-Y employees want to work for a company where they can learn, grow and be empowered to make a difference.

Empowerment seems to be a sexy word to use today. As a young talent, I equate the essence of empowerment with being given a platform to participate in decision making and influencing processes in an organisation.

It’s about the ability to have active participation in varied contexts, especially in issues I may find or define as important. It is to some extent being able to challenge the way things are, versus how they can be.

Empowerment is truly a tool for young people to realise their potential in an organisation. Couple being ambitious with having high expectations of themselves, it is imperative that young talents are given channels to be involved in an organisation’s growth and development.

Regardless whether it is a small or large project, if it bears significance to the organisation, being involved allows young talents to feel important and empowered. It is recognition of the skills these young employees can bring to the table.

Being accustomed to having choices and options along with the ability to exercise the right to make choices, has accelerated the maturity and responsibility of individuals of Gen-Y early in life.

Your average 24-year-old has grown up with the reality of high speed internet, mobile and app craze for anything and everything, and instantaneous multi-channelled information streaming 24/7.

Young people today manage multiple tasks and time zones with ease. However, when we enter organisations as upcoming young talents, how is this potential harnessed?

Faced with the glam of organisations like Google and Microsoft, every young employee wishes he or she could have similar experiences. Empowerment seems to be the “in” thing that organisations are being told to champion. It is very likely though that these very same organisations are not ready to empower young people.

Leaders may like to deny the existence of politics and bureaucracy in the organisations they built or serve, however, the reality is that these are inbuilt within the organisation’s culture and changing these will take time. But it is these subtle nuances that become the limiting factor in empowering young people.

Perhaps there is a view that too much empowerment leads to threatening positions. An employee may fare much better than a superior on a task or responsibility. Does this now lead to the superior’s position being threatened?

If organisations are looking forward, then leadership development and empowerment are synonymous with one another.

Empowerment seems to be the “in ” thing thatorganisations are being told to champion. It is very likely though that these very same organisations are not read y to empower young people.Empowerment seems to be the “in ” thing that organisations are being told to champion. It is very likely though that these very same organisations are not read y to empower young people.

As organisations allow for young people to grow and contribute through empowerment initiatives, then organisations should also look to develop the leadership capacity of its other talents, especially those who have consistently delivered and have the capacity and skill to lead the organisation to the next level.

Young talents recognise there is an opportunity to reverse mentor in areas where the younger generation clearly have an advantage: technology, rapid information sharing, new age marketing, and to some extent, simplification initiatives. The hunger and drive of these young talents to contribute can bear significant rewards to an organisation if nurtured and harnessed properly.

Why should you empower your workforce?

The days of making it big with one single genius idea are long gone – growth today is a direct result of a potent combination of a thousand small improvements blended with strategic management. When we accept this as the way forward, then the case for empowerment speaks for itself.

“The way things get done,” as Anthony Lye, senior vice president, CRM Solutions at Oracle Corp. has described the corporate culture of empowerment, “needs to be inclusive, creative, considerate of employee wellness, and rewarding. In short, an empowered employee works within a business democracy”.

That’s the expectation of the talent market today; so why else is empowerment important and how can it possibly impact your organisation?

Let’s look at the simplest example – technology. Most, if not all companies, have at some point in the immediate past had an urgent meeting to discuss something that an employee posted online, be it a Tweet, or a Facebook posting or worse still, a YouTube video that has gone viral with the company’s prestige being dragged along with it. Problem? Yes. But it’s also an opportunity.

An episode like that is a great wake-up call and can serve as the catalyst for change. We can’t control technology, much less the access that employees have to it. So go back to basics; acknowledge that technology is a powerful tool and turn it to your advantage to grow your organisation.

Set a framework policy, train employees in permissible communications and activities, and harness their creativity as a strategic force to power your company. Armed with technology, your employees can build solutions at the speed of today’s connected customers.

Empowerment is a key enabler for organisational agility. To you and me, that simply means the organisation is a living, breathing, evolving entity that is able to learn, improve and grow from experiences.

Empowering the employees enables the highest order of Maslow’s theory; Self-actualisation which in turn turns potential into workable and effective talent.

So go ahead – empower your organisation and then sit back and watch your organisation reach for the stars!

So why empower the young?

It’s really simple. We have the ability and will go that extra mile.

Today we’re preparing for skills and jobs which do not yet exist. The past five to 10 years have seen a technology boom, and we are not even sure what tomorrow holds. So how do we prepare for what’s not around yet?

The best way to prepare is through people. When you empower your people, your eyes and ears are multiplied 10-fold. It’s building an ownership to the organisation through empowerment which allows people to want to go the extra mile for the organisation. This extra mile could translate to picking up on new information or spotting trends which may be your organisation’s next big thing.

Young people have a hunger and drive which is waiting to be tapped. As leaders in your organisations, if you don’t maximise the capability of your talent, someone else will. And that’s where issues of retention arise.

The reality of today’s young working adult is that job cycles last only between three and five years, and by the time you are in your mid-30s, you have probably held between three to five jobs.

Much of this stems from frustration in not being able to grow or contribute and therefore moving on. Not necessarily to greener pastures, but this process of moving carries on until the greener pastures are found.

The risks don’t end there. But the rewards are far more attractive. Reflect on the boom of entrepreneurship. Everyone, both young and experienced wants to be a CEO.

Young people are tempted by the fame and glamour of being their own boss and crave some aspect of power and control. In your organisation, building structure for mini CEOs could translate to increased engagement and productivity, which then translate into results.

An environment which allows aspiring CEOs to “run free” with their ideas and mini projects, carry potential not only strategically and financially, but it is an excellent training ground for future leaders to be identified.

As I reflect on what is the most important reason to want empowerment, it is knowing that I, as a young talent, have a meaningful place in my organisation.

As my leader, you value my skills and capability and I’m trusted to contribute back not only through work, but through integral initiatives which make a difference. Furthermore, my suggestions and opinions matter to this organisation and you should not only ask but consider my feedback for improvements.

Empowerment serves to enrich me as a talent, but building the culture of empowerment for young talent builds the organisation’s diversity in thought and capability. It is building both breadth and depth of the organisation through its most important asset – people. Your organisation’s got talent! Empower them and let them soar!

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