As we think about the future of work and take action toward changing it for the better, employee empowerment is an important factor to consider. Empowering workers by allowing them to make autonomous decisions and provide input can help create a high-performing team of confident, creative individuals who make better coworkers.
As Natalie Baumgartner, Ph.D., Chief Workforce Scientist at Achievers, puts it, “It’s important that employees feel their input is taken seriously because employees who feel ‘heard’ by leaders are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to do their best work — and an empowered workforce can strengthen and build a more positive company culture.”
That’s something all organizations want — but how to get there? In this article, we're going to take a look at best practices for leaders who are looking to foster a culture of employee empowerment. Let’s get started!
Work with your non-management employees to define what employee empowerment means to them
Empowerment can mean different things to different people in different organizations. It’s not a one-stop shop but, generally speaking, people who are truly empowered feel supported by their managers and secure when making decisions.
Step one of setting your people up for success is listening to and understanding what people need to find meaning in their work and feel competent in their abilities.
Why? According to one pre-pandemic global study, more than half (58%) of non-management employees said that people did not act in accordance with their words, while only 37% of C-suite level executives agreed.
Signalling your commitment to creating an organization where workers are given the licence to innovate starts with honest communication. Soliciting input can help you clearly define how people in your company define empowerment. This information can guide you as you invest in mentoring and coaching, outline paths for growth, and recognize those who exemplify exceptional leadership.
Make progress, not perfection, your end goal
Empowering employees isn’t an exact science, and because of this, it’s important to continuously gather feedback after that initial consultation stage. Here are three things that can help you prevent missteps as you roll out an employee empowerment program:
1. Prioritize trust
How workers react and perceive greater autonomy or shared decision-making is rooted in trust, and without this, even the best-laid plans can go awry.
For instance, a 2018 study in Harvard Business Review found that, in one instance, providing employees with additional responsibility and challenges at work backfired. Rather than feeling inspired and empowered, employees felt overburdened, while their stress levels also increased.
So, while staff empowerment is a good idea, make sure you continue to have open and honest conversations as employees learn how to handle these new responsibilities.
2. Remove the fear of failure
Asking people to take on more responsibilities and urging leaders to relinquish control requires a mutual respect that can take time to build. Therefore, it’s important to think about what message you want to convey in those conversations you’ll be having.
One way to increase your likelihood of succeeding is by making it clear to your newly empowered workforce that perfection isn’t expected. Nobody is 100% successful all the time, and people learn by making mistakes. Understanding this can prevent an empowerment strategy from going off the rails.
Giving managers the ability to try new things without the fear of severe repercussions should things go wrong allows them to learn and change direction when necessary to best serve their team — and the business.
3. Be an example
Don’t underestimate your ability to influence whether new ideas are welcomed with fear or acceptance.
McKinsey and Company recommends that senior leadership should be the ones acting as first adopters of this approach. By doing so, they serve as an example to those who will mirror or learn from those actions.
By being transparent about the process of trying new things, and showcasing the steps required to make progress, leaders can create a true learning environment where others can feel more confident when taking risks.
Of course, modeling the right behaviour, making trust a priority, and giving people the room to fail isn’t easy. Knowing this, how can you provide teams with the confidence they need to try new things?
Gain buy-in by making psychological safety a part of the process
McKinsey and Company conducted a global survey in 2021 that found that consultative leadership — where team members are encouraged to share their perspectives and opinions — creates an environment where employees feel psychologically safe.
Some of these same components are key to empowering employees and building trust. True trust is found in consultative, supportive spaces where employees are able to take moderate risks, make mistakes, and speak their minds without the fear of punishment; in other words, psychologically safe environments.
LaFawn Davis, Indeed's Group Vice President of Environmental, Social & Governance says: “Psychological safety is what makes us feel we belong. When you feel psychologically safe, you believe others will give you the benefit of the doubt. You can ask questions and raise issues without fear. You can be vulnerable with others and be who you are — which, in turn, helps you connect with others.”
The feeling of belonging can provide the confidence workers need to speak up, take on new challenges, offer creative solutions, and help others. So while creating a psychologically safe environment is a group effort, it directly benefits organizations looking to empower their employees on an individual level.
In the past year, workers have adapted in ways we never imagined. After enduring hardships, eye-opening events, and dramatic shifts, some companies have stepped into a new way of thinking.
We spend one third of our lives at work. The autonomy to grow, take on new responsibilities, offer new ideas, and throw passion back into the place where we spend the majority of our time can offer a renewed sense of purpose.
Empowering your employees is so much more than a means to an end. Building psychologically safe environments, making room for growth, and encouraging empathy across your organization can also have a positive effect on your culture, making employee empowerment a key differentiator for any workforce.