A Balanced Approach to Empowerment in the Workplace

There are obvious benefits to giving employees more autonomy in the workplace. Empowerment in the workplace means greater engagement, more accountability, greater job satisfaction, and greater ownership of tasks are all possible benefits. But greater autonomy also comes with a health warning. Disobedience, recklessness, slipping of standards, etc. are possible side effects of inappropriately handing over autonomy and control to employees.

The leader’s role in giving autonomy in the workplace

In order for the autonomy afforded to employees to be productive it is important that leaders get the right balance between autonomy and structure/control. In order to realize the benefits of creative employee commitment that is made possible by increased autonomy, the leader must be very deliberate about how autonomy is given.

Thankfully, the process of giving autonomy is perhaps the most significant opportunity for the leader to earn loyalty from his/her people. In light of this, this process is worth your while as a leader. And this is just for the benefits it will have for the business, but also for the benefits it will have for your interpersonal relationships with your people. The process of giving autonomy is in fact a process of empowerment. And Empowerment is a fundamental building block for a relationship of trust between leader and subordinate.

We become deeply committed to leaders that we believe have been deliberate about empowering us. We see that those leaders have the intent to build us in the course of our work. Ultimately, the more we believe that the leader is unconditional in this regard, the more we will trust that leader.

An incremental process of empowerment in the workplace.

You should be very deliberate about how you give autonomy. In the beginning this means that the process must be incremental. This is appropriate however, because empowerment, almost by definition, is an incremental process. Empowerment does not happen over-night. Similarly, one does not give autonomy over-night.

Each step of empowerment in the workplace involves a greater degree of trust and entrustment to the employee. At each increment, the employee must demonstrate the responsibility and accountability to warrant being further trusted with greater freedom and autonomy in their roles.

There is always a risk attached to giving autonomy.

If this process happens too quickly, greater autonomy runs the risk not only of damaging the business, but also disabling the person. A Mine Captain working in a mining client of ours recalled an experience in which he gave one of his supervisors greater authority. He believed at that point that the supervisor was ready. Tragically, the supervisor didn’t adhere to a number of crucial standards and this ultimately resulted in a fatality in the section.

It is not clear to the Mine Captain whether the person was truly ready. It seems reasonable to assume that he wasn’t given that handing him autonomy ultimately resulted in a fatality. But, whether he was ready or not, handing authority was always going to come with risk. This event demonstrated that.

There are a number of lessons from this anecdote. The first is, there is no getting away from the fact that giving autonomy comes with risk. We have to prepare to accept that things might go wrong when we are empowering someone. This is the case even if the leader is very deliberate and intentional about the process. There is always risk when someone is taking on something new and challenging. This is partly why the willingness to empower someone earns trust. It demonstrates a willingness to take a risk on someone.

We must be very deliberate about ensuring means and ability are in place for empowerment in the workplace

Nevertheless, the job of the leader in a process of empowerment is to mitigate the risk. This happens by ensuring that both means and ability are in place.

In the first instance, we have to make sure that the person has all of the resources, tools, standards, etc. they may require to perform effectively.

Secondly, we have to spend time coaching the person to build their ability prior to handing over autonomy. It is also necessary, once autonomy has been handed over to stay very close to the person to observe their ability. We must make sure, before we can “leave it to them”, that they really have learnt what they needed to learn. There must therefore be an intense period of “watching the game” when the process starts.

If the leader does not do this very deliberately, they run the risk of disabling the person and ultimately undermining trust in the relationship.

Do not forget the why

It is also very important in this process to coach the person on the why of the task/responsibility. The fundamental intent behind handing over autonomy and the process of empowerment is to build a sense of ownership in the person.

This is really what empowerment is about. It is about building a sense of mastery in a person. It is about making them a more significant part of the business. We must therefore engage the employees on the business’ journey as a whole. We must help the person experience themselves as engaging with an organic unity. A unity that is greater than themselves which is progressing towards a meaningful destination. And, we must help them feel that they are a very significant part of that journey. This gives them the chance to willingly take on the responsibility of reaching that destination.

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