Empowerment is the process of sharing knowledge, authority, and responsibility further down the organization than previously thought possible. The goal is to fully tap into the tremendous potential that lies within all of us. Empowerment is much more complex and significantly more difficult to implement, particularly in the beginning, than the authoritarian command and control mentality.
The challenges of implementing empowerment, the inevitable mistakes, the openness, the iterative effort required, leaves many yearning to return to the simplicity of “be quiet and do as I say.” Yet the loss in productivity is tremendous when the mind and spirit of workers is not fully engaged. Much of the loss from a lack of empowerment is opportunity cost: the customer who never comes back, the innovation never implemented, the resourcefulness never tapped, the sale never made.
Traditional accounting systems don’t capture opportunity costs but they frequently highlight the cost of the learning mistakes the command and control systems are good at avoiding. If a leader is not fully attuned to the benefits of an empowered team, the siren song of command and control can be seductive.
Here is Covey on empowerment.
Conditions of Empowerment
by Stephen R. Covey
Let’s look more deeply at critical conditions of empowerment necessary to release the enormous capacity within your people to meet and exceed the needs of customers and other important stakeholders:
The foundation to all effectiveness and empowerment is trustworthiness. It means that individuals demonstrate both strong personal character and professional competence. They are committed to the shared mission and values of your organization.
One indication of character is reflected in the way we deal with others. How leaders are perceived to treat those they lead will have a far more significant impact on employee performance than the organizational mission statement hanging on the wall. An empowering leadership style requires open communications, not closed; releasing people through win-win performance agreements, not controlling them; and synergistic approaches to making decisions and giving directions, not authoritarian methods.
Trust is the fundamental principle underlying and sustaining long-term, interdependent relationships. It is the fruit of trustworthiness. An environment of trust requires individual and organizational trustworthiness. Have you ever experienced a trusting relationship, sustained over time, in the absence of trustworthiness? You can see how the two principles are inseparable. Trust in a culture is the key factor that enables people to unleash their unique, creative capacities.
A system of win-win agreements
Too often, workers misunderstand what is expected of them; they become frustrated when lack of clarity around guidelines or available resources makes their supervisor or customers upset. In their simplest application, win-win agreements represent an ongoing, mutually beneficial relationship between two or more people or organizations who work together. They consistently engage in open, synergistic interaction, always seeking optimum, mutual benefit.
Win-win agreements mean constant understanding and commitment around five key elements to guide the collaborative behavior of the parties: desired results, guidelines, resources, accountability, and consequences. When an organization supports such relationships systemically, win-win agreements create an effective framework for interdependent cooperation.
Self-directed work teams
When leaders structure their organizations to support self-directed work teams, they create a key condition of empowerment. Employees who engage in team and individual self-direction create a powerful force for self-motivated continuous improvement. Special training may be necessary to help people accept the responsibility and develop the skills for effective self-supervision. Deep understanding and commitment to the mission, values and strategy of the organization are essential. The payoff in a leaner, more flexible, responsive and productive organization can be incredible.
Aligned strategy, structure and systems
Organizational trustworthiness requires alignment——the harmonious interaction of mission, values, strategy, structure, systems, and management style with the realities of stakeholder needs and the environment.