Have you ever interviewed for a job because it promised to give you the freedom to grow in your role, only to find out you were working for someone who micromanages you?
I have, and it sucks.
Most managers want committed employees who can get work done without constant direction; some just aren’t sure how to achieve that goal.
Managers try all sorts of gimmicks to encourage employees to make decisions and take independent action. What they don’t realize is that a lot of these efforts fall flat leaving them wondering why people won’t act in “empowered” ways. Maybe you’ve heard something like this before:
“When I started this program I was pretty sure it would work. I kept seeing employees who didn’t care about their job, didn’t understand what it took to maintain the business and didn’t seek out ways to help the business grow. I was always excellent at doing this earlier in my career, so I tend to be hands-on, spending lots of time showing them how to do their jobs the right way. Even though I worry a lot about the decisions they make, I still want to delegate projects that will help them grow. I don’t get it…they won’t take my lead. I don’t think employees want to be empowered…”
The traditional view of “employee empowerment” is broken. Why? There are two fundamental reasons. The first breakdown happens when the manager confuses delegation with empowerment and doesn’t give employees the freedom needed for independent action to take place. The second failure occurs when the manager doesn’t understand that you can’t give people power. The only thing you can do is create an environment where employees understand the company’s vision and feel that they have the freedom to do whatever is required to achieve it – thereby creating power for themselves.
Empowering your employees is not about finding ways to give more authority; it’s about liberating them so that they can make something happen with that authority. Before you add any programs, take a look at the habits you might have that are seriously limiting your employees’ ability to help run the ship, maybe without knowing it. Here are eight tips to increase the likelihood your employees feel this freedom, how to recognize them, and what to do instead:
Strong commitment has to start with you
You should never expect employees to commit fully to goals that they don’t think you are committed to first. Whenever I speak about creativity, leadership or digital marketing (or any learning objective for that matter), the first thing I ask people to do is commit to putting it into practice. It sounds simple, but even if you hear and agree with principles you receive, not committing to following through and putting the principles into action will not get you where you want. If you want to have employees who know how to make things happen you have to commit to doing the things that will make that possible.
Communicate your vision clearly
Vision is the fuel that drives most significant efforts. It’s the model that employees are supposed to be working toward bit by bit every day. To have the most impact employees need to know and understand the vision. I’m not talking about plaques, t-shirts and wordy statements that don’t mean anything. Your vision should clarify for an employee why their job exists on the deepest level, regardless of what they do. Also, it’s important to note that there is a difference between “sharing the vision” and making sure there is “shared understanding of the vision.” If the team doesn’t commit to or more importantly – understand how it relates directly to their role in the company, it will be ineffective. Understanding your vision allows employees to seek out creative solutions to everyday challenges because now they know why they are doing it.
Have genuine empathy for the people doing the work
One thing you can do to derail employee proactivity is to tell them you value them and then not show it. In today’s economic downturn employees, should be viewed as appreciating assets. That means understanding the cumulative value of training and experiences employees receive while working for you. Skill and talent simply aren’t the same thing. If you use “skill” and “talent” interchangeably, and see employees as replaceable expenses you are more likely to cripple or crush a healthy company than you are to encourage people to seek new opportunities to grow themselves and the company.
Coach them and get the hell out of the way
If you want a surefire way to stop employees from seeking new ways to improve the business – be an autocrat. Autocratic managers, who micromanage tend not to be able to use employee empowerment because they don’t understand its source. Micromanaging diminishes employee self-confidence while killing their ability (and desire) to take the initiative and think for themselves. The best policy is to coach your employee how to determine the best decisions by teaching concepts like problem-solving, communication, conflict resolution and time management. Coaching allows you to step away and know that for the most part when they make a decision it’s probably exactly what you would have them do. If you think it’s necessary to oversee all aspects of employee work, and will not give up control, you need to examine that first. “Empowerment” becomes a futile and demeaning exercise if it’s only about delegation. Start freeing your employees from the traditional shackles and “helpful” managerial intrusions.
Have a small body and a big brain
In a traditional environment, most of the knowledge or expertise resides at the top of the organization or in specialized roles. It’s much more about hierarchy and control than it is about efficiently solving business problems. To give employees the ability to move an organization forward you have to flip this model. That means anyone in the organization can be a part of the “brain” because they have access to the information, expertise, learning opportunities, decision-making authority and most importantly the accountability needed to do so. People also need to be allowed to cross the boundaries between the roles in the organization easily to make things happen. In this way, your job isn’t just to be the “boss” and the employees’ job isn’t just to “complete tasks” as delegated by the “boss”. Both become a part of a larger, more capable company brain.
Encourage organizational curiosity
Many times people are hired based solely on technical skill or expertise and are expected to contribute within a narrowly defined job role and an even narrower scope of “this is how we do things.” It’s usually unstated, but no one wants you to ask questions or make suggestions about anything other than the job you were hired to do. Are you a programmer with an excellent idea for the marketing team? Don’t even think about it because it may be dismissed and undoubtedly be unwelcome. As a manager, you can help cultivate an environment of empowerment by encouraging employees to have a voracious appetite for questions and the desire to seek out the answers without worrying whose toes they step on. Curious employees don’t tolerate mediocrity and definitely, don’t have a just “doing my job” attitude.
Accept their failures and turn your own into lessons
Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, once said: “Success lies on the far side of failure.” Most people begin believing failure is a bad thing early in their careers, and avoid situations where they could potentially fail at all cost. The truth is, every successful breakthrough is the result of a thousand failures. Employees have to believe they can make mistakes so that they can learn from them and produce more. Tell your employees about your failures and what you learned from them. Instead of saying things like “Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” adopt a habit of saying “Anything worth doing is worth having the courage to do poorly.” Action whether it’s right or wrong breeds more action. Being secure in the idea that failure is accepted is a critical step in getting employees to take more action.
Challenge your sacred cows
We live in a world of constant change and thinking that your processes, your policies or even your business model don’t ever need to be changed or even thrown out is a recipe for disaster. Most companies have at least one “ideal” whose meaning has lost its original impact, but hasn’t been abandoned because of the energy invested in its creation. These ideas are often immune to criticism and the people who challenge them are often ignored or marginalized. Why is this a problem? Because even if the old “ideal” was correct when it was introduced, it might be false now because it is based on facts that have changed or become irrelevant. You have to encourage employees to view everything (policies, processes, meetings, etc.) as being open to challenge. That doesn’t mean that you will change them, it only means they feel free to and trust that if it’s a good idea, it will be considered.
Remember this powerful truth: Empowerment has little to do with you giving an employee anything other than freedom. It’s all about an individual enabling himself to take action, control their work and make decisions autonomously. Empowerment comes from the person and isn’t just a matter of delegating job authority to the job-holders.
Get The Kenzie Notes
I publish a newsletter with my thoughts on creativity, leadership and design thinking. A lot of them get posted here, but not all of them. If you'd like to get new insights on creativity, leadership and innovation sign-up below.