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October 29, 2019 | Human Resources | Posted by Cory Ploessl

Employee Empowerment that Actually Works

Employee Empowerment from the Perspective of the Employee and their Leadership

The theory goes, the employee given greater responsibility and autonomy over her organizational tasks will feel a greater sense of professional agency, be more productive and feel more fulfilled by her work. That sounds all well and good but exactly how can leaders and their employees build the mutual trust necessary for employee empowerment to flourish?

From the Leader's Perspective: How and Why to Empower Your People

  • Research Supports Employee Empowerment

    Perhaps the most interesting and extensive research on this subject was conducted by the Harvard Business Review (HBR). They conducted a meta-analysis of all available field experiments on leaders empowering subordinates – examining the results of 105 studies, which included data from more than 30,000 employees from 30 countries.Their findings revealed, employees who thought their leaders were more empowering “felt a greater sense of autonomy or control in their work, they felt that their job had meaning and it aligned with their values, that they were competent in their abilities, and that they could make a difference.”The data revealed that empowered employees were more productive, especially in terms of creativity and citizenship behavior. Indeed, the empowered employee was much more willing to help a colleague across departments or to show up to non-mandatory work events, just to name two examples.

  • The Limitations of Employee Empowerment

    While productivity gains were seen in creativity and citizenship behavior, routine task performance saw little to no improvements when comparing employees who felt empowered at work to those who did not.For instance, one study in the HBR analysis found that providing employees with additional responsibility actually backfired. Many of these employees felt burdened by the extra challenges put on their plate and underprepared or unqualified to deal with their newly expanded responsibilities.The empowering leaders who did see better performance on routine tasks were those who developed strategy and trust alongside their people and offered adequate training and time for their employees to succeed. It’s important to remember, adding freedom and responsibility alone is not enough to empower your employees. A more thoughtful and effective approach requires alignment between individual aspirations and organizational goals.

  • Is Empowering Employees Inherently Disruptive?

    Scott Burns, Founder and CEO of Structural, would argue that truly empowered and connected work communities function best without the restraints of a traditional office hierarchy. In a recent article, Hierarchy is Dying. Is Your Organization Ready? he talks about the importance of trust in a world where work is more fluid and more geographically dispersed than ever before:

“An organization that doesn’t trust its employees to manage their workload while being able to connect with others as needed will quickly find itself with “doers” and not “learners” which is an organizational death sentence in a world where the half-life of skills is so short.”


From the Employee's Perspective: Your Role in Fostering Empowerment

It almost writes like a cryptic proverb: to become an empowered individual one must first realize they are already empowered. Indeed, if you are not driving your own professional empowerment the actions and strategies of your leadership are almost a moot point. That being said, if you work in a large enterprise, and are not encouraged to take on new challenges, it’s really quite easy to feel powerless and small.

  • Embrace Accountability

    Empowerment is impossible without trust and trust takes time to build. One way to build trust with your employer is to embrace accountability in everything you do. Be proactive and realistic when setting expectations and make sure those expectations are clear, documented and agreed upon between you and your boss. When priorities shift, and they will, you can revisit your agreed upon plan with leadership and set new expectations. This will help you stay agile and accountable while ensuring you don’t get sucked into the mental downward spiral of “I have to get it all done, right now!”

  • Align Your GoalsAccording to Craig Hickman, “the end goal of accountability is keeping everyone on track to achieve the shared goals of the organization.” (Accountability Insights) It’s important to align your professional development goals with the goals of the organization. Problem is, most employees don’t understand what those broader goals even are. In fact, according to a recent survey, 85% of employees aren't even sure what their company's overarching goals are. So if step one is communicating with leadership to fully understand the goals of the organization, step 2 is setting personal goals that not only aid in your development, but advance your organization’s goals as well.For example, you are a sales professional interested in learning more about video production. Your sales team has made it a goal to increase their deal close rate by 10% by the end of the year. You do your research and find that including personalized video in sales emails can significantly increase reply rates for prospect outreach. Finally, you pitch an idea to head up a sales video initiative for your team and ask leadership for the time and resources necessary to make it a success. You’re much more likely to get buy-in when your personal goals align with those of your organization or team.
  • Advocate for your Professional DevelopmentAs in the sales professional example above, advocating for your personal growth and development, especially when it aligns with organizational goals, can be a great way to build trust. Personal advocacy can take many forms. Perhaps it’s asking leadership if you can take a course in project management or maybe you actively seek a mentor who is a couple steps ahead of you professionally. Tap into internal resources, such as employee directories or intranets, to see who in your organization is best suited to help you as you as you advocate for your own empowerment.

Employee Empowerment that Actually Works (for Everyone)

Employee empowerment works. It works for organizations and it works for people. Leaders must remember added responsibility and autonomy can help your employees feel a sense of purpose and lead to higher levels of productivity but, if not delivered with trust and proper support, you will be left with an overtaxed workforce who has no way of knowing if they are meeting expectations. Employees must remember that empowerment starts with embracing accountability and is supercharged when you advocate for your own personal and professional development.

Cory Ploessl is the Content Marketing Manager for Structural. When he isn't writing about empowering people and teams he can be found at the local curling club, cooking up a storm, or hanging with his wife and infant son.