In our Empowerment Cycle series of blogs we’ve looked at different ways that organisations can enable deeper workforce involvement in the business transformation process, using their experience and input to find out where innovation efforts should be focused, to validate why valuable time, cost and effort should be assigned to those efforts, and to identify and explore what types of ideas offer the most promising solutions for solving the challenges that are uncovered.
This is all great – few people (hopefully) would argue that the recommendations that we have made offer sensible, productive and effective approaches for an empowered workforce to take, but the inconvenient truth is that none of it will lead to sustainable organisation improvement unless the underlying conditions for empowerment have been tackled.
In our view, the effective empowerment of staff at all levels is a fundamental measure of organisation health. The more leaders and managers can empower their people to take ownership for appropriate results and outcomes, the more they themselves can move away from direct supervision and micromanagement towards a more productive role for organisational success. In addition, greater levels of empowerment provide the opportunity for much higher levels of fulfilment and work satisfaction for all.
To create the necessary conditions for effective empowerment, we think that leaders and managers need to embrace some fundamental building blocks and definitions which will make the journey easier. Having a shared understanding and vocabulary for empowerment enables all parts of the organisation to pull together and work towards the same goal.
The Empowerment Cycle – Ownership for Desired Results
Perhaps the best place to start with the fundamentals and shared vocabulary is to ensure we understand the term “empowerment” itself. In our work we connect the concepts of empowerment and ownership. To us, for someone to be empowered means that they are fully enabled to take ownership for a specific result or outcome. In the context of the organisation this specific outcome can be identified in the purpose of the role that the individual performs. Ideally, all roles in the organisation would be defined with reference to the purpose – the reason why the job is there in the first place – and that the purpose for each role will have a clear line of sight to the overall organisation purpose, strategy, and plans. Each role, in other words, would clearly and overtly connect to the organisation purpose. The post-holder will know explicitly how their own effort contributes directly to the success of the organisation.
Taking ownership in this context then means that the individual concerned will do everything they possibly can to deliver the desired outcome (purpose) specified for their role. For effective co-ordination, the organisation must specify what discretion and resources the individual has (i.e. enablement) at their disposal to deliver their responsibilities. This provides the scope within which the individual can take action. The empowerment circle is completed when individuals are able to provide an account of the actions they took in practice (i.e. accountability) to deliver the desired outcome and demonstrate the learning that they have taken from those efforts.
Whilst this cycle sounds simple, many organisations fail to deliver a number of the conditions required. Many of the “mechanical” elements are often done poorly. In particular, the “contract” between the employee and the organisation is often insufficiently specified meaning that expectations and scope to act are not clear, in turn diluting the sense of empowerment that the individual experiences.
In addition, the empowerment cycle must be supported by critical underlying assumptions that, in part at least, define the culture of the organisation. Empowerment in this context assumes that learning and growth – at the individual and the organisational level – are key goals. The more individuals take ownership, the more they find new ways of tackling problems and challenges in the job, the more they learn, the more capability and performance improve. A supportive culture would also be one which tolerates “failure” as a necessary condition for learning. Things will go wrong, poor decisions will be made, unforeseen circumstances will prevail.
What’s most important, however, is that the organisation can learn from these setbacks and take steps to ensure that the same “failures” are much less likely to be repeated.
Encouraging a Mindset for Empowerment
When the organisation has set appropriate expectations for empowerment, leaders and managers would do well to encourage an empowerment mindset through coaching and performance management practice. In our work we identify a series of “meta skills” – qualities that will see individuals make the most of the scope they have to act in an empowered organisation. Taking ownership for results requires a commitment and effort beyond a passive, reactive approach to work life. Amongst the most important meta skills that underpin empowerment, in our view, are:
Future-focus – a concern for delivering results into the future and not just in the short term
Proactive – anticipating problems and taking early action as unforeseen problems arise
Risk-sensitive – accurately identifying the risks associated with a particular course of action
Curious and creative – a desire to find new and better ways of delivering results
Resourceful – makes good use of all of the resources available
Desire for learning – identifying and exploiting all opportunities for learning from experience on the job
The more employees at all levels employ these meta skills the more likely they take full ownership and hence deliver on the results required of their role.
Empowerment Beyond the Job
Many organisations are looking for empowerment in a wider sense than simply role-focused empowerment, however. Role-focused empowerment employs the “contract” (tangible and psychological) with the individual to specify the role purpose and scope within which an individual can take action. In this way, individuals are empowered to assess how well results are being delivered, identify what is required to make delivery more likely, and act appropriately.
For empowerment beyond the job, there are more constraints on what individuals can actually do acting on their own. They must take account of the ownership for results that others in the organisation have, and also they must work with the resources they have at their disposal. Often the most effective empowerment action they can take is to make suggestions or proposals (ideas) about what might be done differently to have a positive impact on organisation results.
The psychological “contract” in these circumstances relates to how well the organisation enlists support for the overall organisation objectives. In our view, effective organisation engagement programmes will be those that encourage employees at all levels to take joint ownership (along with all other employees) for desired organisation results. Engagement on its own, however, is not enough. Empowerment instead requires all employees to clearly understand what the organisation is trying to achieve, and the possible constraints within which they can action. At the organisation level, these constraints may be represented by values or culture considerations for example.
In our view, employees that are comfortable with the practice of job-focused empowerment will be better placed to make a meaningful empowerment contribution beyond the job as well. Ideally they will take the same commitment to learning and improvement and apply it to the larger organisation goals and priorities.
Using Challenges to Encourage Empowerment
Leaders and managers can help develop this organisation level contract with employees by publishing regular challenges directly related to strategic priorities. In this way, the purpose and goals of the organisation are kept front-of-mind for the whole organisation, and employees are encouraged to take action by submitting ideas (proposals) for improved performance. This same process can be cascaded down through the organisation by publishing challenges at department and team level as well.
Effective organisation challenges will be aimed at priorities that are not specifically within the remit of any one department or team. They will encourage curiosity and creativity by requesting genuinely new ideas – new ways of working, new approaches, new operating models, or the application of new technologies.
Employee empowerment is the key to unlocking the potential of any organisation. History has shown time and time again that many of the world’s most successful business are those in which the entire workforce is empowered to contribute their views, feedback, input and ideas that might play a part in the future success of the organisation.
In our 6-part series we’ve shared smartcrowds’ view of the world or workforce empowerment. It isn’t easy, and is littered with challenges that need to be overcome, but the information that we have shared will hopefully act as stimulus for leaders of organisations who are either thinking of, or already embarking on, a journey towards workforce empowerment to gather their thoughts and create a plan of action that will lead to success.
If you want to find out more about how the smartcrowds empowerment and innovation platform and supporting services can help your organisation start its voyage of empowerment, contact a member of our team – we’d love to share some stories!