How can managers encourage their staff to become more active and more involved in the decisions and actions that affect their jobs? Why is it that employees who seem uninterested, bored or cynical at work show lots of enthusiasm, energy and creativity the moment they go home?
In their book, ‘How to lead a Winning Team’, Morris, Willcocks and Knasel say: “If you treat people like robots, they will behave like robots.” On the other hand, if you give your employees authority in the right way, usually they will take responsibility.
Empowered employees are normally more motivated and take more pride in what they are doing. This is particularly true of staff who have to deal directly with customers and therefore know best what your customers want and need.
To assess your own individual situation within your organization, ask yourself the following three questions:
- What is the basic purpose of my job?
- What proportion of my time do I spend doing work directly related to this central purpose?
- What proportion of my time do I spend doing tasks I see as urgent, but which are not directly related to my role?
Usually, the less empowered we are or feel, the more of our time we spend doing urgent but less relevant tasks. The optimal division here should be the classic 80/20 rule: 80 per cent of our time should be spent on work directly related to our basic purpose, and just 20 per cent on less relevant work.
How to empower
Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the starship Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation, always discusses with his team of officers any emergency the ship meets with in space. When they have agreed on a goal and a course of action, he simply says, “Make it so!” He then expects the officers and crew members to carry out their tasks in the best possible way according to their skills and abilities – without him having to check every step along the way. He clearly believes in staff empowerment and has trained his crew very well.
So what steps should an empowering manager take to ensure success of this kind?
1. Keep it simple
Don’t announce that you are going to empower people. This may lead to resistance. Just do it! Look for and encourage small improvements. For example:
- Let someone else chair the weekly meeting.
- Evaluate your meetings.
- Set up a group to suggest better team processes.
- Ask “What can I do to help?” more frequently.
- Don’t take over tasks in order to finish more quickly.
- Tell people more clearly what you expect.
Follow Mark McCormack’s advice in What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School: “The sign of a good manager is the ability to say: ‘I don’t know. I was wrong. Please help me.’”
2. Lead by example
There is a cynical saying for bosses: “Don’t do as I do! Do as I say!” If you want to empower, however, this is no help at all. Your behaviour as a team leader, manager or supervisor should be a model for your team:
- If you want people to be reliable, you have to be reliable yourself.
- If you want people to trust you and each other, you have to trust them.
- If you want people to make an extra effort, you have to work harder, too.
- If you want people to be open, you have to show sincerity yourself.
- If you want people to be creative, you have to accept that they will make mistakes.
Think about your own behaviour at work. How do you lead by example? What else should you do?
3. Be enthusiastic
If you do not show enthusiasm for what your team is doing, it is impossible for them to be enthusiastic. Often, people who are enthusiastic are seen as naive. However, being positive helps your staff to overcome problems more easily. It also counteracts the cynicism and disillusionment that some people in the organization have, and which can spread like a virus.
4. Give your staff the tools they need
“The only thing more expensive than education is ignorance,” said the 18th-century US statesman Benjamin Franklin. When you expect people to take on new responsibilities, you have to give them the tools to do the job. This means analysing the skills each member of staff needs and finding ways to fill any gaps, whether through external training programmes or on the job training. Ideally, you should have a personal development plan for each staff member.
Managers should also act as coaches to their staff, building people’s confidence and self-esteem and showing them what they are capable of doing. There are all sorts of activities you can use to coach people:
Demonstrating a task and watching while the learner tries to perform it.
Observing someone else with the learner and discussing the process.
Observing a learner at his or her normal work and giving feedback.
Asking learners to specify problem areas, and discussing solutions; then providing support when the solution is put into operation.
5. Give positive feedback
Feedback is a particularly effective tools for empowering employees. It allows them to understand their strengths and to recognize areas for improvement. It helps them to see the progress they are making. It shows them that the organization is interested in them. And it can also give them new perspectives on problems.
Remember, however, that feedback is not criticism. It should focus on problems or issues, not on the person. It should deal with particular situations and not make generalizations (avoid words like “always” and “never”). It should look for solutions rather than blaming people for mistakes; and it should look to the future and not dwell on the past.
Think about how often you give your staff feedback. As a manager, look for opportunities to give positive feedback and reinforce good practice. Remember also to give credit when people get it right, including when you report to people outside your team.
6. Working for change
What can you do if you want to empower people, but you work in a highly traditional, bureaucratic organization? You need to be a guerrilla fighter for empowerment. That doesn’t mean trying to start a revolution. It means bringing about change from the middle of the hierarchy. Again, this is a question of looking for small gains. Make your standards and values known. Let your own example, and that of your team, speak for itself. Promote the efforts of your own people. Be the spokesperson in your organization for quality customer service. And above all, be patient and persistent.