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Employee empowerment in the workplace

10 min read
How to encourage employee empowerment in your organisation, and why you’ll be glad you did.

What is employee empowerment?

Empowered employees are those who know they have the ability to accomplish tasks successfully, believe that their team, management, and organisation are behind them, and feel confident in them.

Employee empowerment is a whole-company achievement. When leadership believes in managers, those managers are empowered to support employees, who can, in turn, empower them with feedback and appreciation. In that way, empowerment can flow between individuals who believe in and support one another.

How does employee empowerment benefit your business?

Empowering employees is consistently linked with positive outcomes for both employees and organisations in academic and professional research.

As McKinsey & Co. point out, empowering employees benefits organisations by reducing the decision-making load on leaders, who at the highest levels can spend up to 70% of their time making choices – often without sufficient time and information to do so.

A study of remote workers by Jabra found that high levels of employee autonomy were associated with higher levels of belonging, motivation, productivity and mental wellbeing. In some cases, highly autonomous employees reported 20% higher levels of positive outcomes than those with low autonomy.

In another academic study, empowered employees were found to have a more positive attitude towards their employer overall.

A review in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that psychological empowerment was associated with better job satisfaction, higher organisational commitment and performance, as well as being negatively correlated with intent to leave.

How is employee empowerment different from employee autonomy?

Employee autonomy is a popular topic at present, and it’s closely linked with employee empowerment. Autonomy is the quality of being free to accomplish things as you see fit. It’s extremely important for employees to have the appropriate amount of authority in order to do their jobs well and use their talents and skills to the fullest.

However, without empowerment, autonomy may just feel like being unsupported or unstructured in your job role. If an employee is given the freedom to choose how to do something but doubts their own abilities or isn’t sure of the right approach to take, it’s no longer a positive situation.

With the benefit of coworkers and managers who believe in their decision-making and supportive culture around them, empowered employees can use their autonomy with confidence.

The freedom to fail

Granting autonomy to employees and empowering them to use it means giving them permission to try things out, and to fail without fear of repercussions. For many leaders, this prospect might seem daunting at first. But it holds true that failing and learning from it – ‘failing forwards’ – can accelerate learning and innovation, yielding a stronger long-term outcome.

The theory of Positive Entrepreneurial Failure, developed by Professor Nathan Greidanus of the University of Manitoba Asper School of Business, states that entrepreneurs are set apart from others by their perception of failure and their ability to persevere through it and go on to succeed. Indeed, those that have made previous attempts are more likely to find success.

Not all failures are created equal, and managers should be careful to note which type they are dealing with, as HBR explains. When employee failures are a result of hypothesis testing and exploration, they’re most likely to deliver value and drive innovation forward in the long run.

Risk-taking is a key principle of employee empowerment. It’s positively associated with employee engagement too, as being free to try things out and express ideas is key to the concept of psychological safety.

Ways to empower employees

So how do you implement employee empowerment on a company-wide level?

Make it part of your company culture

Making employee empowerment part of your organisation’s culture is one way to make sure it sticks for the long term. Leaders and managers have an important role to play in making this happen. They can help employees feel empowered by providing a role model to follow. Coaching and employee development will help employees take ownership over their roles and own some of the decision-making around their job functions. It will also be an opportunity to discuss how failure plays a part in success, develop mutual trust, and help employees feel empowered to innovate.

When moving from a more authoritative culture to one of employee empowerment, it’s important to pace things appropriately. Suddenly changing from established rigid protocols to a completely empowered environment is likely to be disorienting, so begin with a certain degree of autonomy and build up gradually.

Clarify roles

In order to be able to take initiative with confidence, employees need to understand the extent of their decision-making responsibilities. Setting clear expectations around the employee’s official capacity and their scope for additional responsibilities is essential. So is making sure to provide employees with an understanding of how their role and their manager’s role intersect.

When there’s confusion over who is responsible for making decisions, it’s likely friction will develop, and it may well fall to senior leadership to make decisions that could have been handled elsewhere in the organisation.

As you empower employees, develop clear agreements around who is responsible for what, and when the manager should bring their seniority and experience to the table in order to support employees on their own projects.

Go beyond delegation

Handing responsibility to others is the essence of growing your business, yet it’s something many of us find challenging, particularly when we are passionate about our work. Being able to identify which tasks and decisions should be shared, and assigning them to direct reports with the appropriate balance of support and empowerment, takes both critical thinking and emotional maturity.

When management relinquishes the power traditionally held at more senior levels and is comfortable delegating responsibilities, there are risks as well as rewards. As research shows, empowering employees can be burdening as well as enabling. Done right, employee empowerment makes people more effective in their roles and is linked with stronger job performance. But when too much responsibility is placed on an employee’s shoulders, they can begin to feel stressed at work, which undermines the positive impact of giving them more control.

Listen, learn and adapt your approach

Maintain consistent trust-building conversations between empowering leaders and employees through an ongoing program of listening and feedback. By giving employees the chance to feed back on the level of freedom and control they’re experiencing, and whether it’s perceived as empowering or overwhelming, you can turn every stage of the process into an opportunity for learning and refining your approach.

Employee empowerment challenges

Employee empowerment examples

Looking for some inspiration on how you can empower employees? Here are some businesses that are well-known for giving employees meaningful ways to contribute to the company’s success.

  • Home Depot

The home improvement retailer put its money behind employee empowerment when it reportedly instituted a policy of allowing employees to offer a discount of up to $50 to customers, without the need to check with a supervisor or manager first. The discretionary discount can be used when the employee feels it’s appropriate.

  • Nordstrom

Department store Nordstrom made headlines with its fabled employee handbook which apparently consisted of just one rule – use best judgment in all situations. Although it turned out to be only part of the company’s rules and regulations for employees, it does illustrate the company’s approach to delivering its famously excellent customer service by empowering employees.

  • Ritz-Carlton

Hoteliers Ritz-Carlton allow each employee to spend up to $2000 per guest, per incident, and even more if their manager agrees it’s warranted. Explaining the policy in a blog post, Ritz-Carlton noted that while the full amount is rarely used, it has a symbolic value in demonstrating the amount of trust the company has in each of its employees. This significant investment helps employees feel empowered and inspired to provide better quality experiences for customers.

  • Southwestern Airlines

Employees are the experts when it comes to what it takes to do their jobs day-to-day, and you can empower employees while harnessing this knowledge. That’s why when Southwestern Airlines was ready to update its uniforms, it didn’t hire an external designer. It tasked a hand-picked committee of employees to design its uniforms instead so that they would be functional, fashionable, and practical (including being machine-washable).

Discover companies that get culture right 

Employee empowerment and employee experience

Authority and empowerment are important drivers of a great employee experience, impacting positively on employee engagement, intent to say, meeting employee experience expectations, inclusion, and well-being.

In order to empower their employees, more and more employers are turning to employee development and experience management programs that take the guesswork out of improving employee engagement and driving cultural change. By providing a continuous listening function between employees, higher-level management, and HR professionals, along with a layer of data analysis, predictive insights, and automated actions, you can accelerate improvements in your organisation and build cultural alignment at every level of the business.

Measure and grow employee empowerment