The empowerment divide
The notion of front line empowerment has existed for many years. It divides opinion from manager to manager with some believing it to be a hugely important enabler of high performance while others view it as a 'buzz word' that is rarely practiced effectively.
Reasons cited for a lack of empowerment
Effective empowerment requires a lot of trust between managers and employees.
- Managers need to have confidence that employees will make the right decisions and get the task done to a level which they (as the manager) are happy with. The perceived risk of the wrong decisions being made can be too high for some to comprehend.
- Fear underpins resistance - of both poor judgments being made and for the implications for future supervision if lots of the right ones happen as well.
- Employees can also be fearful, with negative perceptions of added responsibility, workload, pressure and accountability.
- 'Telling' people that they are empowered only goes so far - a lack of effective follow up, communication, encouragement and actioning of ideas has put a halt to the best of intended empowerment initiatives: "They say we are empowered but we don't really believe it"
- A lack of support from senior leaders, not playing their part or even doing things which get in the way of effective empowerment is regularly cited as a major stumbling block
What is empowerment?
Since 1993, Quo have worked with hundreds of unique organisations across many different industries. There are many interpretations about what empowerment really means, particularly across different cultures. However we have also established some common themes.
- It's not all or nothing. Effective empowerment is about a balance between certain tasks which the employee has complete accountability for and authority to deliver and others which require further input and shared responsibility.
- There is a difference between accountability and responsibility. Employees are responsible for all tasks that are required to achieve the objectives of their role. They are accountable for the success or failure of certain tasks as the ultimate decision maker for that task. Other tasks require shared or separate accountability.
- Empowerment is a level of accountability agreed between an employee and their manager. It requires a two way contract of trust with an agreed level of skills, knowledge, experience, judgment and decision making ability identified.
Effective empowerment strategies
When it comes to effective empowerment, some of the most successful organisations that Quo have worked with share a number of fundamental traits:
- An open dialogue between manager and employee is a must.
- Varying levels of empowerment (from colleague to colleague) exist to reflect different levels of experience and track record, helping to secure the full confidence of the manager.
- Empowerment is flexed over time as experience and trust levels rise.
- Empowerment should be related to organisational values and vision.
- 'Safe failure' is allowed to occur, with managers not be afraid of employees making mistakes, but ensuring that they learn from them so risk taking and judgment skills are enhanced.
- Leaders play a key role, creating environments where thoughts, feelings and ideas can be aired easily and often and effective feedback provided.
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