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3 Critical Elements in Empowering (And Motivating) Employees

By C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.

What is employee empowerment and why use it?

Empowering employees means allowing them to develop their own areas of responsibility. Supporting them by giving them the authority to exercise their own expertise and judgement in doing their jobs, running a team or managing projects. Yep, "empowerment" means exactly what the word says: giving them the power.

So you give them the power to use their own discretion. The power to make the decisions about what to do and when to do it. And the responsibility for their mistakes as well as full credit for their successes.

It's exciting. It's exhilarating. It's scary. It's one of the most motivating experiences an ambitious employee can have. And you limit it to discrete projects until the employee proves him/herself.

Seeing an employee succeed in such a process is also motivating to other employees who have hopes and ambitions.

But empowerment doesn't mean handing over the responsibility and saying "go to it." Not only do you have to carefully choose what responsibility to give to whom, you also have to give them resources and backup.

So, here are three management elements to have in place before turning over any project.

1. Use a careful selection process.

If you don't choose the right person for the project, the whole idea of empowerment is going to blow up in your face. Just as when you hire someone new, you must have a candidate who has the required knowledge and skills for the job. Or, you must make the project part of a training program and reduce the level of responsibility accordingly.

Review his/her qualifications, work history and performance assessments. Ask for advice and recommendations from his/her former bosses at your organization. Talk with his/her peers. Again, vet your candidate as you would a new hire.

2. Disclose everything the employee needs to know.

Even if it's a company secret, if it's something that can make a difference in the success of a project, make the information available. Part of trusting an employee with responsibility is trusting him/her with all the information, ideas and analyses that can make the project work. Power without knowledge is useless.

How many times have you heard the expression "need to know?" It's used in TV programs so often it's almost a joke: within the story, you see a military operation that fails because a critical piece of information was left out of the briefing prior to the operation. The ensuing conversation involves a lot of arguing about who's responsible for the failure. The team that was doing the actual job says that they should have been informed of x. The powers-that-be say the information was on a "need-to-know" basis. The team replies, "yeah. And that was something we needed to know."

3. Have a support system established.

As a manager, you expect the organization to back up your authority and your decisions. When you empower an employee to make judgements and decisions, you should be there to back them up.

So, while an employee is in charge of a project, the team is subject to his/her authority. No end runs allowed. No gossiping or complaining outside the team process. No running to the boss to second-guess something a team member doesn't like.

Yes, you should keep an eye on what's going on and get regular reports and informal updates from the project leader. But in-team conflicts have to be worked out in-team. The project leader has to lead. If something appears to be going wrong, you and the project leader discuss it. If someone on the team has a complaint he can't work out with the team leader, you discuss it with the team leader and help him/her learn to work it out in-team.

Anticipate that there may be bumps in the road. Know that you may not have all the answers to help smooth them out. Especially with employees who have expertise on a project that is greater than your own. Be prepared with suggestions of others in the organization that might help. Be prepared to get consultation from outside the organization if it is necessary. It's what most organizations do for managers. An employee who is going through a process of empowerment needs to have the same kind of resources and back-up.

It's worth the risk

There's a lot to think about when embarking on an employee empowerment program. As scary as the responsibility can be for the selected employees, it's even scarier for management. What -- me let go of power and trust someone untried? But if you've selected good candidates and use good management sense in supervising them to success, you can create an atmosphere of goodwill among all your employees that simply can't be bought with money or other rewards.


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