How to Empower Your Employees…and Yourself


TIn the high-octane world of modern business, you hear a lot of theories about what it takes to increase employee productivity. Empowerment is one of the philosophies discussed most often, especially as it relates to the corporate team environment. The idea is simple enough: by implementing practices that help employees feel confident, capable, and in control of the outcome of their work, they feel empowered to do that work effectively and without excessive oversight or micromanagement. Ideally, this ensures commitment to the company's core mission and vision, which results in greater productivity over the long term.

That's the theory, anyway. But as any scientist will tell you, all that really matters is how well a theory stands up to testing. If it's a dud, a few experimental runs out in the real world should soon put it to rest.

So: how does the employee empowerment schema fare? As it turns out, empowerment really does work—like gangbusters. Real-world experimentation has repeatedly proven that the best employees are those who "own" their work; that is, those who feel they have a say in how they do their work and are fully engaged in the outcome. Empowered employees aren't just proud of their work, they're more productive than their disempowered colleagues. In general, they're also more satisfied, so they bring in more business by making customers happier, which translates into greater profits. This holds true in both the individual and collective senses. From a hardnosed financial perspective, then, employee empowerment is a good business.

Now: before I talk about what you can do to implement employee empowerment in your company, let's look at what empowerment isn't. Even when they're willing to consider the strategy, managers often develop a false idea of what empowerment actually is, and end up shooting themselves in the metaphorical foot when they try to implement. For starters:

• Empowerment isn't a right, it's a privilege. Individuals should be fully empowered by management only when they prove that they can do the job and display the proper initiative. On the other hand, the opportunity to become empowered should always be a right.

• Empowerment isn't always assumed by the employees, no matter what management may think. If your employees aren't taking the initiative to own their jobs, then they don't feel empowered to do so. Why? Probably because you haven't made it clear that they are.

• Empowerment isn't a bunch of motivational posters or empty slogans that management pays lip service to but doesn't really follow.

• Empowerment isn't a blank check to do anything the employee wants. Management must set explicit boundaries within a strategic framework, so that employees know and understand which decisions they can make without management approval.

• Nor is empowerment management by consensus. A business isn't a democracy. When properly implemented, empowerment gives workers the authority to do their jobs—not the management's.

What "employee empowerment" boils down to is a philosophy that allows people to make decisions about their work, within certain broad guidelines. Simply put, it lets employees think for themselves. Now, some observers claim that empowerment comes from the employee, and to a certain extent that's true. However, I believe that true workplace empowerment comes from the employees and management working in tandem. The employee has to be willing to show initiative and take control of their work, yes; but the management team has to be in a position to encourage and allow employee empowerment, or it will never occur.

Which brings me to a critical point: management can have a regrettable tendency to express a commitment to the concept of empowerment, without actually making it an effective part of corporate culture. Many of us have seen productivity initiatives fizzle, because management is somehow under the impression that a few catchy slogans and a coffee mug (or worse, some atrocity like an "empowerment rock") is enough to actually empower employees to buy into the company's mission and vision and take ownership of their work. Worse, some companies send their employees to productivity training as a matter of course—and then just as routinely ignore the employee attempts at self-empowerment that productivity teaches. That's like pouring money down the drain. It's hard to say why companies would waste resources this way, though it may stem from an unwillingness to give up control to the employees, or from a fear of losing certain privileges. More likely, it's due to a deep-seated belief that the employees can't actually do their work properly without constant oversight.

Whatever the case, if you're washy-washy about empowerment, you're unlikely to see a significant productivity increase when you try to implement it. Even in these uncertain times, the most you'll see is employees who do only what they have to in order to get by. Don't underestimate your employees: they're keenly aware of what you think of them at all times, and a halfhearted empowerment effort will go over like a lead balloon. The ironic thing here is that employee empowerment isn't all that difficult or expensive to implement. Delegation of tasks to particular individuals, encouraging employees to focus on specific, reachable (if occasionally difficult) goals, consistent training, and employee coaching are all ways that a manager can effectively empower his or her employees.

All this does take some work on the part of management, of course—and it's here, unfortunately, that the process breaks down. Too often, managers are unwilling to put in the effort necessary to achieve the level of empowerment that can make productivity take off like a rocket. That's too bad, because direct involvement and supportive communication on the part of management are two of the foundations of employee empowerment.

First of all, you have to make your employees understand what you're trying to achieve. You can't do that by just ordering them to do this or that, without providing an explanation…well, you can, but that's the military way (as my father the Colonel would say)…and employees aren't soldiers. They haven't been through the intensive training that the military uses to break down the individual and rebuild him into the type of soldier they need. So help your employees understand what you're trying to do. Explain the company's mission in a simple, straightforward way. It can be as simple as, "We're trying to make the best tires in the world," or "We're world leaders in software technology, and we want to stay that way." You don't have to ramble on about "leveraging our core business" and "optimizing quality-driven geo-targeted bandwidth," or "gap analysis," even though all that may be integral to your business strategy. Just give it to them straight. They'll appreciate that.

Managers also have to be willing to give of themselves, in the sense that they have to a) provide assistance that's appropriate to the problems faced by the employees, b) carry out any requested assistance competently and completely, c) encourage employees, and d) provide information or express concern in a way that neither embarrasses the employee nor causes them to lose face (hence the old saying, "Praise in public, criticize in private"). They should also be willing to correct the employee along the way—again, in a respectful way, if possible. Treating employees the way you want to be treated is essential, because nothing can match motivated people who really care about their jobs and know that you care about them. A recent Global Workforce Study conducted by Towers Watson reveals that employee confidence in their leaders is at low ebb as of mid-2010; therefore, a willingness to make your commitment to empowerment obvious to your employees offers more of an advantage than ever.

And let me be clear: empowering your employees to do their jobs confidently and without excessive oversight isn't an altruistic move, although your employees may think so. When properly handled, employee empowerment is a win-win situation all around—because in addition to making employees more productive, it also makes you more productive. By tapping into the knowledge and energy of your employees, you not only take advantage of the "many heads are better than one" thesis, you get to focus on your own most profitable tasks—the reason you're getting paid the big bucks in the first place.

At your level, tasks like marketing, inventing, and hiring top-notch employees are a whole lot more profitable than running around putting out brushfires or doing menial tasks. What's more productive for you: planning a marketing blitz that could bring in a million bucks, or helping your intern photocopy a report, because you're not convinced he can do it correctly? The choice is a slam dunk…or it should be. After all, what would you rather do: minimum wage work, or something that's worth hundreds, and potentially thousands, of dollars an hour for the company?

If your employees seem unwilling to take initiative to empower themselves, find out why. If it's obvious that they don't have the training they need to do their work with confidence, then train them! They need to be confident not only that they're allowed to do the job, but also that they can do the job. That's another foundation of workplace empowerment.

Uncertainty hampers both empowerment and the productivity that comes with it. Basic education isn't enough; it's crucial, but it just prepares a person for their career. New employees need hands-on training, so that they can gain experience in handling the specialized aspects of particular tasks. Your only other option is to toss 'em out there to sink or swim as best they can. This approach to "empowerment" is inherently wasteful, not just because it limits the development of their personal competency at particular tasks (and thus their productivity), but also because it blows a hole in your team's productivity levels, too. Even if the individual learns to swim, it'll take a while; and if they sink, you're back to square one.

Once an employee has enough training that their ability to do the job is unquestioned, you'll have to remind them that they are, in fact, empowered to do that job. In other words, start delegating tasks to them, and make them aware that it's up to them to get the job done. You can't do everything, and you shouldn't try—or you'll end up with that lack of initiative that so many managers complain about. Never let your employees think they have to consult you before they do even the smallest tasks. Just put stuff on their plates and let them get it done. Large products require discussion and the setting of deadlines, as well as steady monitoring, but don't hover. Size up your team, learn their skill levels and natural talents, and then hand off tasks to the appropriate individuals so that projects can be completed on time.

Recently, I expressed frustration to my office manager, Becca, about the inefficiency of correcting simple typos we found on our website: send an email to our IT guy, provide the link and the correction, and wait. She was taking college courses in IT and had created some simple websites in class. So I asked her if I purchased a web editing software package, would she feel comfortable making the changes. She spent time learning the package, and we specifically discussed her taking the initiative to make changes whenever she saw errors or needed corrections. I am now happily freed of this time-sucking task, and she is enjoying her newfound skills.

Making people responsible for their tasks will stimulate them to succeed, so be sure to set goals and deadlines for your employees. The goals should be reasonable, though they might be a bit difficult to achieve; as a result, the employee will have to stretch, which will result in increased confidence and, ideally, a heightened sense of empowerment. Don't make the goals excessive; that can lead to frustration, poor productivity, and an erosion of the sense of empowerment. The intelligent manager takes a person's abilities into account and doesn't overburden them. On the other hand, a little encouragement can result in a significant increase in productivity; and to some extent, increased productivity and empowerment feed off each other.

Finally, if you want your employees to continue to feel empowered, reward them for their productivity. Otherwise, you're telling them you don't appreciate their contributions—and down goes productivity, because what's the point of working hard? For some, a verbal "pat on the back" will do, and such recognition is the least that you should offer. For most people, though, money's a prime motivator. A nice bonus or a gift card is always appreciated!

Make it a productive day!

(C) Copyright 2009 Laura Stack. All rights reserved.


© 2009 Laura Stack.  Laura Stack is a personal productivity expert, author, and professional speaker who helps busy workers Leave the Office Earlier® with Maximum Results in Minimum Time®.  She is the president of The Productivity Pro®, Inc., a time management training firm specializing in productivity improvement in high-stress organizations.  Since 1992, Laura has presented keynotes and seminars on improving output, lowering stress, and saving time in today’s workplaces.  She is the bestselling author of three works published by Broadway Books: The Exhaustion Cure (2008), Find More Time (2006) and Leave the Office Earlier (2004).  Laura is a spokesperson for Microsoft, 3M, and Day-Timers®, Inc and has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, and the New York Times. Her clients include Cisco Systems, Sunoco, KPMG, Nationwide, and 3M.  To have Laura speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401.  Visit to sign up for her free monthly productivity newsletter.