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5 Steps to Empowerment in the Workplace

Empowered employees are a leader’s dream. Empowerment in the workplace doesn’t come easy though and it definitely doesn’t happen by itself. Empowered employees are the consequence of a conscious investment. This investment will always come with some amount of risk. At some point, empowering employees will require the leader to take a calculated risk of letting go of control and handing over to the person.

Very often this puts the company objectives at risk. Handing over means the ball is in their court. The leader can’t be there to make sure the ball doesn’t get dropped if employees make a mistake. This is, once again, the whole point of empowerment, getting employees to take ownership. So, it is no surprise when we say that empowerment requires courage. It is the courage of the leader that lays for the foundation for employees to become empowered.

Because there are risks involved in empowerment, it is necessary to be deliberate about getting it right. We have a 5 step empowerment process that is designed to walk leader’s through empowerment in a way that ensures that it is successful. The outcome of the empowerment process will be the handover of control. If the empowerment process has been done effectively, this handover of control will result in more efficiency, productivity and a more competent, mature and committed workforce.

Step 1: Identify the Next Step

Empowerment is about letting go of control over people. It is about handing over to them and getting them to take ownership. It is very important that this process is incremental. It is disabling to hand over completely and all at once. That is setting the person up to fail. Empowerment should happen one small step at a time. Each step should give the employee incrementally more autonomy in their jobs.

This is really about giving people the authority to make decisions. This is what the first step is actually about, it is about identifying the next decision that the employee can start making on their own. As a general principle we always say the smaller the better. It could be as small as giving the authority to send a document without cc’ing the leader, or having the authority to sign off on an order without running it past the leader first.

Step 2: Train the Person to Take the Next Step (Both the How and the Why)

Once the leader has decided what decision is going to be handed over, the next step is to train the ability. Step 2 is about ensuring the person is actually able to competently make the decision. This competence should include both the how and the why, i.e. how to make the right decision and why the decision should be made in that way.

A practical example of this was a client who wanted an employee of his to take ownership of the quality of floor plan designs for new retail stores the company was opening up. After deciding that this is what he wanted to hand over, he sent the employee on training. The point of the training was to teach the employee how to produce a quality floor plan designs. He also spent time with the employee to explain what the need is and why he needs to be designing plans in a certain way to meet the need.

The point of the training was to assure the leader that this person was actually in a position to make a sound judgement about the quality his designs. The person must be competent enough that when he signs off on his plan you know its quality will be assured.

Step 3: Test the Ability

Once the leader has sent the person on training it is necessary to test the person’s ability. A leader who does not test ability is looking for trouble later down the line. It is very important to make sure the training was successful and the person is indeed competent.

In the example above, the leader actually asked his employee to come up with a floor plan design that he feels is of sufficiently good quality. He basically said to his employee, “so you went on training, let me see if you can make the right decision about a quality floor plan design. Send me some mock up designs and indicate which of them you would sign off on.”

It is important that the testing of ability is thorough. For the empowerment process to work the leader needs to be fully assured that the person is competent enough to make the right decision.

Step 4: Hand Over the Means

Once the leader is assured that the person is competent the next step is to hand over the means. This entails giving the person all of the necessary tools, resources, standards, time, and authority to make the decision. Handing over the means is really about saying: “I am assured you are competent, here is everything you need, you own it now, you have the authority.”

From the example above, the leader ensured the person had the computer and software he needed (though this was provided from the beginning of the process in this case). Most importantly however, he handed over authority. He told the person, “now it is your call, you have the authority, you make the decision.”

Step 5: Hold the Person Accountable

As far as we are concerned step number 5 is the most important because it is the whole point of the process. The whole point of empowerment is accountable people making autonomous decisions and shouldering the consequences of those decisions.

Steps 2-4 ensures the person is competent and has everything they need. Step 5 addresses their willingness by holding them accountable. The reason why it is necessary to first get steps 2-4 right is because only then are you able to address the willingness issue. By step 5 you are able to say, “I know you are able and have everything that you need. The question now is do you want to?”

At this point it is necessary for the leader to monitor what the employee is doing. This monitoring is different from the control that would have been present before the empowerment process. Before the empowerment process, the decision could not get made without the leader making it himself/herself. This amounts to saying something like: “don’t send the document before you have run it by me.” Now the decision is made by the employee without consulting the leader but the leader must keep his/her finger on the pulse in order to hold the person accountable for a bad/sloppy decision, or of course for a particularly good one.

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Assad holds a Masters in Philosophy from the University of the Witwatersrand and is currently a PhD candidate. He is the editor of the Schuitema blog and is a regular facilitator of the company's Care and Growth and Mentoring for Mastery programs. He also has 5 years experience lecturing and tutoring Philosophy at Wits.

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