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Andrew Loveless

Pecan Partnership


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From micro-management to empowerment in five steps

You may intend to empower your employees, but is this a daily reality or does micromanagement slip through the net? Andrew Loveless, Director of Pecan Partnership shares five ways to enable freedom and autonomy at work, everyday.
person standing near body of water, empowerment

A growing number of employers are aspiring to create an organisational culture that fosters empowerment. The old models of control/command and micromanagement are huge demotivators for many workers today, especially younger generations. As such, many leaders seek to replace these traditional practices with more people-focused approaches that will enhance engagement and loyalty.

But when it comes to embedding a culture of empowerment, good intention often doesn’t translate to day-to-day reality. Where are we going wrong?

Empowerment defined

The word ‘empowerment’ is bandied around a lot in a workplace setting, so let’s first look at its meaning.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as: “The process of gaining freedom and power to do what you want or to control what happens to you.”

In the workplace context this involves employees having a certain level of autonomy in the decision-making process.

As leaders, we need to make empowerment feel real for employees and not just a company value with no substance. These five steps will help.

1. Open up

Start by getting yourself clear about your purpose in this: 

  • Why do you want to develop greater empowerment?
  • How does your team feel about greater levels of autonomy?    
  • What benefits are you expecting it to deliver? e.g. Higher productivity and quality of work, better employee engagement and retention, enhanced customer experience and satisfaction, improved communication, more efficient decision-making and problem-solving
  • What challenges do you think you will encounter?
  • What new ways of working might it involve?

Then be open about this purpose with your teams, using these questions to explore what empowerment means and why you want more of it. 

Be okay with not having all the answers, role model empowerment by getting the team to think about and come up with the answers.

Your job is to position it as a journey that will deliver benefits for individuals, teams, customers and ultimately the organisation.  

But don’t view it as an open-ended journey – it needs light-touch steering so schedule progress checks to share learning, adapt and modify to help stay on track.

2. Build trust

Research from the Great Place to Work has shown that organisations with high-trust cultures tend to outperform their peers and deliver stock market returns up to three times greater than the average, with staff turnover up to 50% lower than competitors. 

Trust is arguably your superpower in this journey – it’s critical to display trust in your team’s capability and judgement, and encourage them to do the same with their reports and so on.

Being open, listening and asking great questions are the foundations for building trust. And as a leader, role modelling these behaviours is one of the most powerful things you can do to educate others in what great leadership looks and feels like. It builds psychological safety which is a bedrock for a learning culture.

3. Create clarity

It’s worth spending time and energy to get specific on what is to be achieved. Pay particular attention to grey areas where things can fall between cracks or people can trip up over each other.

That way you can minimise any confusion about who is empowered to do what and when.  

Often a lack of clarity is the undoing of empowerment; different people have slightly different understandings and by the time they realise this they have travelled in different directions and are some way apart.

This will create tension and anxiety which in turn may cause doubt about this whole empowerment thing.

It’s also wise to get clear on levels of empowerment and how much ‘checking-in’ is needed. Someone new to a role or with a low skill and confidence level may require a lower level of empowerment than someone who is experienced and looking for stretch.  

4. Check capability

It’s important to check that people have sufficient knowledge and skills to succeed.

Are they able to do the things that you have identified?  

That’s not to say that they should know everything they need to know from the get-go – one of the benefits of empowerment is greater choice, learning and personal growth, so this should be an explicit part of the journey.

But there should be collective confidence that they know enough and have the ability to develop other required capabilities along the way. Managers should assure their reports that they are ultimately accountable and so will have their back along the way.

Where required, provide learning and feedback to get employees ready and confident.

5. Show empathy

Things don’t always go to plan.  

Even with the best will in the world issues arise that we couldn’t foresee at the start and sometimes people simply make mistakes.

How we deal with this is crucial and is the acid test for success.

Any hint of blame will send out fear and encourage people to not speak up, avoid risk and be reluctant to take responsibility. If this happens the empowerment journey is effectively dead in the water.

Mistakes offer a moment of truth where leaders really earn their money – by taking responsibility, demonstrating trust and assuming genuine positive intent in others.

This maintains a climate of trust that creates the conditions for open dialogue to get to root causes and learn. Share the learning and put in place ways of working to strengthen the practice.

By following these five steps, your organisation will be well on its way to developing an empowering culture that enables freedom to flourish, everyday.

Interested in this topic? Read How to actually develop a learning culture

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Andrew Loveless


Read more from Andrew Loveless