06 Jun 2016 19:44 IST

Do you want to empower your employees?

Here are certain a questions a manager must answer before embarking on an empowerment programme

Today, organisations are concerned with enhancing accountability at all levels, given the fierce competition in the marketplace. A significant part of creating accountability is empowerment. Without empowering people to take decisions or even giving them a little bit of leeway to make mistakes, a culture of accountability can hardly be created, leave alone be sustained.

Traditional command-and-control hierarchies have become completely obsolete. Instead, it is imperative that employees learn to take the initiative — and leaders facilitate this process.

Despite clear evidence that empowerment is central to competitive advantage and despite the fact that many managers agree on empowerment being a non-negotiable necessity, the actual implementation of letting employees be eludes most organisations.

So how can you take care of it? Here are answers to a few questions that managers must ask themselves.

~ What do you mean by empowerment?

This is perhaps the first question a manager must ask himself. Let us understand that empowerment is a fairly complex concept — it tends to mean different things for different people.

At a recent workshop for senior managers, I divided the audience into two groups and asked them to articulate what empowerment meant to them. And it was as I expected — both gave completely different answers.

One group defined it as senior management designing plans and delegating the work to people below for execution and accountability.

The other group had a different understanding. They described empowerment as something that facilitates risk-taking, helps in growth and in managing change. The second group also recognised that the prevailing culture and hierarchical way of operating prevented people from doing what they believed is right. Their points revolved around three major themes:

a) Trusting people a whole lot more.

b) Encouraging intelligent risk-taking.

c) Building a team to practice collaborative behaviour.

It is therefore necessary for managers to reach a common consensus on what they mean by empowerment so they can take the necessary steps to implement it.

~ What are the processes that need to be in place?

The practice of empowerment requires certain prerequisites. First of them is shared information about the company and how it is performing. The Honda plants, for example, have large scoreboards that display information about the plant performance at all times.

Next is putting a structure in place. For example, Ritz-Carlton wants all its employees to pay attention to total customer delight, and to realise the same, make every effort to satisfy a disgruntled guest. But that cost shouldn’t exceed $2,500.

Then comes development of teams, as a replacement for traditional hierarchy. This is not to make the managers irrelevant, but to free them up so they can focus on matters of strategic importance. Empowered employees also need rewards to reinforce their behaviour. Without structures in place, empowerment will remain a dream.

~ What characteristics should you look for in people you empower?

After digging into this question, four common characteristics emerged.

First, empowered people have a sense of self-determination. In other words, they are free to choose how to do their work and need not be micro-managed.

Second, they experience meaning in what they do, which makes them care about their work.

Third, empowered people have the necessary competence, which makes them confident about the job they do. This requires necessary training.

Fourth, they have a sense of impact, which means others listen to their ideas, and they influence people around them to make decisions.

When leaders are sure that these characteristics are present in a person, they are really investing in empowerment.

~ Do managers want empowered people?

While this question may sound perfunctionary or even downright stupid, the truth is far from it. This question is meant to provide introspection, because many times, empowerment programmes fail because this question is not answered.

Managers, more often than not, fear that empowerment may lead to “loose cannons” in the organisation. The reality is that managers do not want to let go of structures and decision-making authority, and conveniently blame people for not “acting empowered.”

So, if there is no genuine intent to empower, it is okay not to embark on an empowerment programme.

~ Are middle managers keen and committed towards empowerment?

In many organisations, the top management would have announced a programme to empower people at the bottom of the hierarchy, but the middle management does everything it can to scuttle, if not sabotage, the initiative.

In such cases, the senior management must make it very clear that the performance criteria for middle managers would be the success of the empowerment programme. And if it fails to take off, actions of the middle manager will come under scrutiny.

So, the next time you have an idea of empowering people, answer the above questions, and then go ahead with it.