In the last few days the word empowerment has been used (and I dare say abused) rather extensively….in a total different context than the business world. Empowerment is a concept in business management that has been around for quite some time and hence has been researched rather extensively.

The concept of empowerment is that if employees are given information, resources and opportunity at the same time as being held responsible for their job outcomes, then they will be more productive and have higher job satisfaction. It is important to understand that a company cannot implement empowerment itself – instead, management creates the right environment so that empowerment can take place…..and in general all the research in the world that when employees feel empowered at work, it is associated with stronger job performance, job satisfaction and commitment to the organisation.

So the first questions are almost a given. As a manager or leader, do you let your people assume more responsibility when they are able? Do you know when that is, or do you keep telling yourself that they aren’t ready yet?

Your employees understand their jobs. They know their tasks, roles and functions within the organisation, and it’s time for you to let them do what they need to do to get the job done. But there is a critical point that is often missed: It isn’t possible for a leader to “empower” someone to be accountable and make good decisions. People have to empower themselves. Your role is to encourage and support the decision-making environment and so to give employees the tools and knowledge they need to make and act upon their own decisions. By doing this, you help your employees reach an empowered state.

The process does take longer — employees will only believe they are empowered when they are left alone to accomplish results over a period of time — but it’s effective and worth the time.

Part of building an empowering environment is dependent on the leader’s ability to run interference on behalf of the team. The leader needs to make sure people are safe doing their jobs. To make sure this happens, an ongoing discussion of the needs, opportunities, tasks, obstacles, projects, what is working and what is not working is absolutely critical to the development and maintenance of a “safe” working environment. So the following are a few things leaders can do to build an environment that empowers people.

  1. Give power to those who have demonstrated the capacity to handle the responsibility.
  2. Create a favorable environment in which people are encouraged to grow their skills.
  3. Don’t second-guess others’ decisions and ideas unless it’s absolutely necessary. This only undermines their confidence and keeps them from sharing future ideas with you.
  4. Give people discretion and autonomy over their tasks and resources.

The latest research indicates that by empowering their employees, leaders are also more likely to be trusted by their subordinates, compared to leaders who do not empower their employees. Lets us delve a bit into this.

Research shows that leaders who are perceived as more empowering were more likely to delegate authority to their employees, ask for their input and encourage autonomous decision-making. Specifically, this type of leadership seems to encourage employees to generate novel ideas and think of new ways of doing things, and to help others in the workplace, volunteer for extra assignments and be willing to support their organisation outside of an official capacity. Research indicates that these effects happen through two distinct psychological processes. First, employees who think their leaders were more empowering were indeed more likely to feel empowered at work – they 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. Hence, empowered employees are more likely to be powerful, confident individuals, who are committed to meaningful goals and demonstrate initiative and creativity to achieve them. They typically have the freedom to generate novel ideas and the confidence that these ideas will be valued.

Second, employees were more likely to trust leaders who they perceived as more empowering. They had greater faith in their leaders and were more likely to put in effort without feeling that they would be exploited. This is not as intuitive as one might think. When a leader tries to empower employees, he or she asks them to take on additional challenges and responsibility at work. Employees’ could interpret such delegating as the leader’s attempt to avoid doing the work him or herself. But research indicates that empowering leadership is also about mentoring and supporting employee development and so this can create a trusting relationship. In turn trust reduces uncertainty in the environment by instilling a sense of safety, which enables employees to take on more risks without feeling vulnerable.

So, ok – I hope you now get empowerment at work. But does empowerment work for everybody? The Answer is NO.

Research indicates that empowering and non-empowering leaders resulted in very similar employee performance with regards routine, core job tasks. Moreover, in some instances and for certain job roles, leaders who tried to empower their employees ended up doing more harm than good – whereby in some cases when trying to provide employees with additional responsibility and challenges at work, empowering leaders burdened their employees and increased their level of job stress. So research clearly indicates that the effects of leading by empowering others are determined by how employees perceive their leader’s behaviour. Some may view greater autonomy or shared decision-making as an indication that the leader trusts them and is providing them with opportunities for self‐development and growth – or they may see those as evidence that the leader can’t lead and is trying to avoid making difficult decisions. In the latter example, employees may become frustrated and uncertain about their role, leading to worse performance on routine tasks. It is therefore vital that when trying to empower their employees, leaders do not add too much pressure or create uncertainty.

Moreover, some employees respond to empowering leadership more than others. Interestingly research concludes that empowering leadership had a stronger positive influence on the day-to-day performance of employees who had less experience in the organisation compared to employees who had been in their jobs for longer. In other words, empowering leaders saw greater improvements in job performance among less experienced employees than among more experienced employees. This may comes as a surprise, however, it is also likely that newer members of staff are especially keen to take opportunities and make a good first impression. Thus, affording newer staff the opportunity to take ownership of their role may be a particularly effective leadership tool.

So in conclusion, in general research indicates that empowering leadership can motivate employees and fuel their creativity but it can also create additional burdens and stress that may hurt the routine performance for employees. Hence, it is crucial for managers to understand that empowering leadership has its limits and that factors like trust and experience affect how effective empowerment really is.

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