Bob Wright, the COO of Wendy’s, said “The ultimate test of a great leader is their ability to find the best in someone else and to bring that out.”
Jack Welch, the former Chairman and CEO of General Electric once said, “No company, small or large, can win over the long run without energized employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it.”
Larry Page, the current CEO of Alphabet, stated that it’s “My job as a leader is to make sure everybody in the company has great opportunities, and that they feel they’re having a meaningful impact and are contributing to the good of society.”
Each of these three business leaders are talking about employee empowerment. This means giving your employees the autonomy to make decisions on their own. It means recognizing the value that comes from each employee’s unique view of the situation. It means not just trusting but actively encouraging people to take risks.
The ability to delegate tasks and trust employees with decisions is part of any leader’s role, but how important is it? Can employee empowerment actually improve how the people in your organization perform? Or is it just about morale building and not so much about the bottom line? And how do you actually foster employee empowerment in your company?
How Important is Employee Empowerment?
Research carried out demonstrates that when employees feel empowered at work they put in stronger performances, experience higher levels of job satisfaction, and deliver higher levels of commitment to their organization.
Each of those benefits sounds ideal, right? Job satisfaction, employee performance, and loyalty are all important components that can not only improve the company as a whole, but also boost an individual’s confidence and self-esteem.
However, this empowering managerial style might not actually impact job performance. It tends to stimulate more creativity, helpfulness, and trust, but it doesn’t always move the needle on certain kinds of work or tasks, according to HBR research. In order to assess where employee empowerment can have an impact, let’s look at the research on when it works and when it doesn’t:
When Employee Empowerment IS and ISN’T Effective
First, employee empowerment works best in more creative domains. Being told to experiment can feel exciting when there’s no one right way of doing things. For routine tasks, however, employee empowerment doesn’t necessarily feel as liberating.
Second, in order for employee empowerment to be effective it’s important that a leader considers the expectations of their employees. Different people will have varying expectations as to how and when their manager or leader should offer an opportunity to make decisions or take the lead on a project. An employee who wants to feel guided and supported might not like being left to his or her own devices.
Last, this approach will work differently on different types of people. For example, let’s take two types of employees. The first, Ashley, is ambitious, creative, and performs well under pressure. Ambitious Ashley wants to be given the opportunity to perform at a level above her current role.
The second, Rachel, is a little more reserved in her personality, but she’s a specialist at what she does, and she does it extremely well. She prefers to focus on what she knows and enjoys.
Typically, if Ambitious Ashley’s manager were to ask her to take the lead on a project for the next three months and only report back bi-weekly, Ashley would receive this news well and feel encouraged to get creative, performing at a higher level than usual to show her skills.
However, if Reserved Rachel’s manager were to offer her the same opportunity, it might be met with scepticism and concerns about her ability to do the job. Worse, she might feel overwhelmed by shifting focus away from what she knows but fail to speak up. Rachel’s manager might not even know that she felt this way until a day when she suddenly announces that she’s taking a job elsewhere, somewhere where she doesn’t feel pushed beyond her limits.
Essentially, the effectiveness of employee empowerment can largely depend on how it’s received. As HBR mentions in the summary of their report, “When the leaders’ empowering approaches do not align with subordinates’ expectations – for example, if they grant too much or too little autonomy and decision-making responsibilities – subordinates may perceive this behavior negatively.”
How to Use Knowledge Management to Encourage Employee Empowerment
We’ve considered when employee empowerment is and is not effective, and we’ve established that it’s important, but how do you actually encourage it in your organization?
Let’s think back to Reserved Rachel, our not-so-keen on empowerment employee. Ideally, you’d like Rachel to relish the opportunities that can come with empowerment, right? Well, we mentioned that she was put off the idea of leading a project for fear of getting it wrong.
Though fear may play a part, it’s also possible that Reserved Rachel is hesitant to accept the new responsibility because she doesn’t understand the goals and context. If she felt more comfortable with all the context behind the new initiative, would she be more inclined to appreciate the added work? Probably.
We can achieve this by taking the approach that the more knowledge you have, the better your decision-making will be. This is where a knowledge management platform like Tettra can help you store and access knowledge whenever it’s required so that your employees can make the best decisions quickly. In this case, Reserved Rachel would have been able to re-familiarise herself with the information on a previous project that her manager had documented and potentially would have been more enthusiastic about the project lead role.