The Hidden Side of Leadership: Cracking the Employee Empowerment Code

Authors: Naila Mir and Quinn Harrington

The fourth article in this multi-part series addresses the challenges employers face in managing their workforce’s environmental, social, and political demands.

Our previous article discussed how leaders can adapt to an evolving workforce. We learned how to overcome personality derailers and navigate change using neuroscience-informed perspective and action.

With insight into the barriers to change and how to identify gaps in your decision-making process, you’re ready to empower your employees or direct reports. 

Empowerment is defined as “The act of giving someone or a group increased authority or influence. This often involves providing resources, opportunities, and support to enable them to act on their own behalf.”

In the workplace, there’s a lot of corporate speak about employee empowerment. Leaders talk with great pride about giving employees autonomy and decision-making power, leading to increased motivation and productivity. That’s not to say leaders are not well-intentioned because the evidence is clear that empowerment leads to a more motivated and engaged workforce.

An empowered workforce breeds innovation and business models that solve problems, bring value to your organisation, and increase employee trust and overall satisfaction. This leads to higher retention and all the benefits we discussed previously. Employees who feel empowered rank in the 79th percentile of employee engagement, while disempowered employees rank in the 24th percentile.

The dirty little secret is that more independent employees mean you and your team leaders don’t have to do all the work. 

But it’s no surprise that ‘talking about empowerment’ is not the same as ‘empowerment.’ What may surprise you is the gap between what empowerment means to you and your workforce. This is the nexus of conflict between communication and engagement.

Lisa Paris is a consultant with over 20 years of experience. We asked Lisa, “How do you define workplace empowerment?” She replies, “It’s about creating a culture where colleagues feel a sense of ownership, capability and authority to contribute meaningfully to the organisation’s goals. There’s an openness, a trust, and a confidence in your ability to get the job done.”

Lisa continues, “It means having a clear understanding of the outcomes we are trying to achieve together, an alignment on how we work together, and the freedom to apply my creativity, decision-making and skill set to deliver a meaningful result. It is also vital to know that I have the support of my leader and colleagues and can openly turn to them for advice and collaboration.

What could be the barriers for employees? Could it be a lack of autonomy or the notion that empowerment comes from the top? Some employees believe empowerment is “not my responsibility.” Perhaps it’s the frustration that change comes too slowly because turning the bow of a big ship takes time.

Lisa takes personal responsibility to drive change. ”Even in spaces where empowerment has been lower initially, I’ve put energy into cultivating an empowered culture through clear mission and outcomes, carefully defined roles and responsibilities, and suitable controls and reporting to check progress and provide support. I believe everyone has to take responsibility for developing an empowered workplace – it only works as long as people are on the same page and committed to delivering results.”

Previously, we discussed how people desire empowerment; however, leaders often fail to provide it, leaving individuals feeling disenfranchised.

The good news is that more than half of your people want to have a more significant role in helping your company change for the better.

You may be communicating your intentions, but they are not turning into action.

Does this sound like a problem you face? Giants like Google or Amazon are structured to empower and innovate. They have the capital and resources to take risks and place big bets. Some organisations, perhaps most organisations, don’t have that luxury. Taking a big risk could plunge the entire company into Chapter 11. Just ask We Work or Smile Direct Club, who filed for bankruptcy in 2023. No one could predict a worldwide pandemic would normalise a permanent remote workforce, leading to the demise of We Work. But there were signs. In the case of Smile Direct Club, negative reviews, patent disputes, and deceptive practices sacked them.

Playing it safe can also lead to stagnation and, ultimately, failure. Kodak, Sears and MySpace are good examples. Kodak failed to invest in digital, opening the door for new entrants. Sears relied on brick-and-mortar sales and catalogues and could not adapt to e-commerce. Facebook overtook MySpace because its technology and UI were terrible.

This is why navigating change is so perilous.

A top-down or “command and control” leadership style differs greatly from a bottom-up or “agile” one. How you communicate is a great indicator of your approach to employee empowerment.

Here’s what a top-down approach looks like:

  • Communication is one-way. You prefer a written communication to the team vs. discussing it in a meeting.
  • Initiatives are announced. Your employees find out in a company article on the website, press release or worse, CNBC.
  • Decision-making is hasty. Listen, everyone, we must move on this and get on board. Talking about it is just a waste of time.
  • Trust is assumed. I’ve been in this business for decades; I know what I’m doing.

We asked James Sabala, a Strategy and Culture Manager, “From your perspective as a manager, how do you define workplace empowerment? What does it mean to you?” James describes workplace empowerment as “the act of providing autonomy to staff so that they have a sense of ownership of their work. It’s the opposite of micromanagement and top-down decision-making. Workplace empowerment leads to increased engagement and productivity… I highly recommend the book “No Rules Netflix” for more on this topic.”

When asked, “Do you consider or feel you are effectively empowered in your company? If yes, why? If not, what could your employer do better?” James replied, “Most of the time! My organisation is going through a period of change following redundancy, and we’re working on co-creating a team charter that follows a consensus-driven decision-making process (where all staff need to contribute and agree on what goes in the charter). One of the topics in our charter concerns organisational decision-making, with a particular lens on autonomy. So while my organisation might still be top-down at times, we’re addressing the issue head-on.”

James’s response inspires us. It demonstrates that employee empowerment can temper the most harmful aspects of top-down management. The key to implementing the charter will require accountability for employees to live up to the standards they agree to. Otherwise, the top-down approach will persist.  

Whether directly or inadvertently, how you communicate reveals your leadership style. Your employees are not dumb. After all, that’s why you hired them. As leadership styles evolve, some leaders resort to covert methods of employee empowerment. 

It sounds like engagement, but it’s really not, and your team can see through that as well.

Quinn Harrington shares a personal experience as the principal of her marketing agency. “Having worked with C-suite executives at large corporations, I’ve seen first-hand how a lack of empowerment creates a ripple effect. One executive we worked with was famous for making sweeping last-minute changes. The communication team would spend weeks creating thoughtful, coherent strategies for mission-critical initiatives that the executive summarily scrapped days before launch. This created chaos within the team from top to bottom. And everyone scrambled to develop new solutions, giving up nights, weekends and holidays to meet a hastily defined plan and an unrealistic deadline.”

Quinn continues, “Despite enormous efforts to pre-empt these situations, we quickly realised it would always be this way. While being a smart, likeable person, this executive lacked confidence in his team, leading to his direct reports feeling deflated and disengaged.”

Engagement is where the action is.

(source: 15 Ways To Empower Your Employees (forbes.com)

  • Engagement is a two-way street. Consistent feedback and listening works. Yes, it takes more time, but it reduces risk and allows you to hold your employees accountable for their input.
  • Delegate the problem, not the task. Encourage problem-solving, let employees take charge, and evaluate performance.
  • Trust employees or team members to make decisions and learn from failure. Teach them how to take a calculated risk. 
  • Empowerment can be achieved company-wide, but it often comes down to one-on-one relationships. Mentoring provides an opportunity to build on successes and failures. Not everyone is CEO material, but everyone wants to grow and feel valued in their profession. When an employee stops growing, they start looking for the door. 
  • Effective mentoring requires understanding personal values. Through this one-to-one work, you can empower your employees to build engagement and better align their skills and talents toward specific initiatives such as diversity or reducing wasteful packaging.
  • Most importantly, involve employees in decision-making and treat them like business owners. According to Jeff Bezos, you can clarify this distinction by dividing decisions into two categories: type one and type two. Type one decisions are hard to reverse and have a high impact, like hiring a new team member or opening a new office. Type two decisions are easy to reverse and have a relatively low impact, like choosing a day of the week for your team meeting. By distinguishing between these two decision types, you can move faster and avoid spending too much time on lower-impact choices. (source:  Why You Should Prioritise Employee Empowerment [2023] • Asana)
  • Tools for decision-making like RACI are tried-and-true tools for evaluating roles, responsibilities, and accountability. Employ this tool for corporate change initiatives, ensuring everyone is heard and engaged appropriately. 

Yannis Liu, a Communications and Sustainability Junior Consultant at P3 Connect, offers her perspective as a new employee and trainee. “Workplace empowerment is when I am trusted to manage my day-to-day work and decide how to manage my time and is recognised after the task is completed and meets expectations. It is the opposite of micromanagement.” 

So, does Yannis feel effectively empowered within her role? “Yes, I feel like I have the autonomy to make small decisions on small tasks and am being listened to when I have suggestions.”

This is a prime example of leadership in action.

Even junior employees in your team want to be heard and empowered to make decisions, no matter how small. Through mentorship and consistent feedback, Yannis could be your next rising star.

Before we close, let’s answer the question, “What if employees demand change that does not align with a company’s values or could create unintended consequences?” In the volatile world of politics and social change, policies, opinions, and circumstances change. The 24-hour news cycle and the desire to shape a narrative are designed to stir our emotions and inflame our passion. More often than not, the facts surrounding a major event do not bear out until weeks, months or possibly years later. 

One example that comes to mind is the war in Iraq. In the months leading to a multinational invasion, world leaders rallied around the threat of weapons of mass destruction and the possibility of Iraq acquiring nuclear weapons. The Iraqi leadership was decapitated, but WMDs were never discovered. Organisations picked sides for or against, and ultimately, some were left with egg on their face. Today, the wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East create a sense of urgency for organisations to weigh in and post their play-by-play viewpoints on their websites and social media. “We stand with Ukraine. We stand with Israel. We stand with Palestine.” The unintended consequences can include division amongst your workforce and customers.

You may discover today’s victim could quickly become tomorrow’s villain.

Much like the war in Iraq, we’ve come to realise that social and political situations are more complicated than what appears on the surface. When a workforce demands an organisation’s leader choose sides, it’s that leader’s obligation to empathise with the loudest voices and the silent minority. Listen, consider and then respond.  

In the world of modern leadership and workforce dynamics, the concept of workplace empowerment has never been more critical. We’ve explored employers’ challenges in managing their workforce’s environmental, social, and political demands. We’ve learned from professionals like Lisa Paris, James Sabala, Quinn Harrington, and Yannis Liu about what workplace empowerment truly means.

Our takeaway

Employee empowerment isn’t just corporate jargon; it’s the cornerstone of a motivated, engaged, and visionary workforce. It’s about trust, autonomy, accountability, and a commitment to co-create a culture where everyone can contribute meaningfully.

As leaders, the responsibility lies with us to bridge the gap between rhetoric and action, to transform our organisations into spaces where individuals at all levels have a voice and the freedom to make decisions that matter. We’ve seen how top-down approaches can lead to disengagement while bottom-up empowerment can drive positive change.

Workplace empowerment isn’t just a buzzword—it’s the not-so-secret sauce that fuels engagement, innovation, and growth.

It’s the way forward for organisations that want to thrive. So, take the lessons from our experts, and let empowerment be the guiding principle in your leadership journey. Your employees are not just looking for jobs; they’re seeking a sense of ownership, growth, and the opportunity to shine.

Remember, whether you’re a seasoned executive or a fresh trainee, your title doesn’t limit empowerment; it’s bound by your commitment to creating a workplace where everyone can flourish. The future of your organisation depends on it.

So, empower your workforce and watch them empower your organisation to drive change. The choice is yours, and the time is now.

Authors:

Quinn Harrington, CEO and Chief Brand Concierge, Harrington Design Company

Naila Mir, Found and Director, P3 Connect UK

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