Delegate & Empower – But How?

It is invariable true, that the hallmark of any great SME or family business is an overriding culture of empowerment i.e the ability for team members and employees to make decisions which in turn enhances motivation and contributes to higher levels of performance and well-being. The other side of the coin is that it gives business leaders the much needed time to focus on the most significant and complex decisions and explore new sources of value creation, rather than being bogged down in daily operational issues. However creating a culture of empowerment involves shifting power from the top of the organisation to the front line (delegation) by empowering people to make decisions. How can this be done effectively?

It might look straightforward. In practice, it’s hard to pull off. It’s a big change for business leaders who are used to a traditional and hierarchical business organisations, in which all the decision-making authority is held tightly by a select few. The culture of keeping a very tight grip on decision making authority is and has been so prevalent in family business and SMEs that thinking of letting go of it seems like an anathema – until one thinks about the heavy downsides of not doing so. What are these downsides?

The result of having decision making authority kept for just a select few, is the creation of a culture whereby employees aren’t accustomed to making decisions. Then things get worse, when any empowerment process is done quickly, in an event like fashion, with employees left to figure it out themselves without clear guidance or support. Even the most capable and enthusiastic employees wonder whether they’re doing the right thing. It can feel that they are walking on thin ice and bearing a risk they cannot carry – they worry about the consequences if things go wrong.

Creating an empowerment culture takes time. Delegating effectively takes time. The main reason for this is that there is a gap between the desire for more empowerment and capability (with confidence) of using that empowerment. If as part of any empowerment process, this gap is left unaddressed, employees become frustrated. The promise of greater empowerment and autonomy needs to followed up with actions and support to enable such employees to develop themselves and gain the confidence needed. So below are some pointers as how to successfully create a culture of empowerment.

Prepare yourself to empower others: Empowerment is a management term that consistently fails to live up to its promise, in large part because business leaders find it difficult to give up control. They see their role and status as tightly linked to their decision-making authority. Delegating responsibility is seen as a diminution of their power. While they might appear confident and assured, underneath they may feel insecure and lack sufficient trust in others. Business leaders need to prepare themselves to delegate decision making by:

  • Reflecting on what has holding them back from empowering people in the past. Was it a failure when they tried? What could have been done differently to make it a success? What were the feelings when they delegated, and what can they learn from them? What will it take to make the first step?
  • Planning for a staggered transition of responsibilities, starting with giving low-risk decisions to capable people. This helps build up confidence in both the business leaders and others before distributing responsibility more widely.
  • Considering it an opportunity to increase the quality of any decision-making and to explore other aspects of their role, such as innovation and growth, as business leaders free some of their time by not being involved in daily managerial responsibilities.
  • Reminding themselves why they are doing this — which should be to give people an opportunity to develop and grow and develop more of a guidance role for themselves.

Develop a set of decision principles: The role of any business leader is to encourage their people to think for themselves. To encourage them to consider what is in customers’ and the organisation’s best interests when making decisions. So it is useful to establish a set of decision principles to highlight potential behaviours that might derail sound decision-making and also to insist on transparency so they’re able to communicate not only the decision, but the reasoning, as required.

Clarify decision-making roles: It’s essential for business leaders to clarify decision roles, rights and accountability. This starts at the top. It is useful for business leaders to write down the decisions they are responsible for, to then consider whether they are the best person to make these decisions. Whether or not to delegate a decision depends on the role of the business leader and his or her capabilities, the materiality of the decision and the expectations of others. The more complex and sensitive the decision, the more likely it is that business leaders will retain the decision-making role. Then business leaders need to identify who they can give more decision-making responsibility based on both their capabilities and area of responsibility and define the scope of what they can make decisions about.

Showing belief in people: Everyone makes decisions every day at work, whether they realise it or not. This includes how to present yourself, how to react to situations,and where to focus your attention. Taking on decisions that have a bigger impact on your team, such as resource deployment,pricing and distribution, can invoke a range of emotions — from anxiety to excitement. Business leaders need to showing their employees and team members that they believe in them as they make this step up, to enable them to build confidence and trust in their abilities. Business leaders can do this by saying things like “I want you to take on more responsibility to make […] decisions given you know the [product/service/market/issue] better than anyone. I realise this is a step up for you and it might feel daunting. But I have every faith in you. You’ve taken on new responsibilities before successfully and I’m sure you can do it again. I’ll be here to help when you need me.”

Embrace learning opportunities: Nothing in life is perfect and rest assured that some decisions taken by empowered team members will go wrong. However business leaders need to address this by using such instances as learning opportunities. Business leaders need to encourage team members to reflect on decisions, especially when the outcomes were not as intended and ask questions such as: What didn’t we consider? What factors did we underestimate? What perspective might have helped? Who should we have involved? What would we do better next time?

I still see, way too often, family and SME business leaders burdened by all decision making authority as they fail or resist to build an empowerment culture in their business organisations. They end up painting themselves in a corner. Greater empowerment is a not only a laudable endeavor but it is the only way forward for any business organisation to grow. However empowerment normally fails. It fails to live up to its promise as the process of empowering people is not done well. It is not done well as not enough attention is paid to what is necessary to really enable new decision-makers to step up – leading business leaders to think that empowerment and delegation are impossible to achieve.

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