Just as a refresher, here is my definition of empowerment:
Empowering employees means cultivating a team that thinks freely and acts in fresh ways to accomplish your firm's fundamental objectives while staying within intended parameters.
Sounds like a great place to be, right? But how do you get there?
Going Beyond Rules To Get Real Results
Ideally, employees should feel free to go beyond mere rule-following to exceed expectations. When your communications only emphasize following the rules, employees get the message that procedures are paramount. But in the end, that's a negative mindset. It can only bring neutral or negative outcomes.
The best-case scenario in a rule-based culture is that employees will always follow the rules. They will do what they're told. They will color within the lines. They will stay inside the fence. They will march-step in predictable ways. Does that sound like success to you?
Do you think you can stay on the leading edge of any industry by merely having obedient employees?
If you said yes, just consider your competition. Do you think they're only going for "good" employees? Wouldn't you suspect that they'd love to enlist employee help to retain business, grow new markets, identify new strategies, invent creative solutions, and suggest cutting-edge improvements? That kind of innovation doesn't come from people who perform only standardized behaviors and concentrate only on getting procedures right. The truth is, some of your competitors are already striving to get their staff to look past the mere following of rules, and go for bigger prey. Isn't it critical that you do the same?
Rules, after all, are limitations that govern how people should curtail their efforts. In a rules-emphasis environment, people strive to achieve compliance out of fear for negative consequences. And in a rules-emphasis environment, consequences are normally arbitrary, sudden and severe. When workers fall short, they're first made aware of their performance gap via reprimands, bad evaluations, or even dismissal. Does that sound like a step towards empowerment?
What if, instead, you gave your staff the guiding parameters for how, when and where they should direct their efforts -- then rewarded them for doing it? People want to be valued for their unique contributions. They appreciate the opportunity to use their skills and initiative to promote their organization's mission and goals. When you continually give clear guidance for how to do that, the rules don't disappear; they just become secondary. The focus is switched from rules to results. That's a very different focus, and it's the key to empowerment.
Do your employees know how they need to behave to make your organization successful?
Last week we talked about tying rules to reasons, so that your staff knows the why behind the what. When people know why they're doing what they're doing -- when they understand the bigger context for their actions -- they tend to engage more positively. So to fuel engagement, always give your staff the reasons behind the rules. Without engagement, there is no empowerment.
Let's take it one step further now. To be truly empowered, your staff also needs you to answer three more questions to fill in the rest of the picture.
1. What are the target outcomes that we want to achieve as a company ?
2. Do employees have permission to act in the moment to achieve those outcomes?
3. What will be the consequences if employees do so?
Let's delve deeper into each of these questions. If you're the boss, you need to be very clear about them if you're going to communicate them clearly to your staff.
1. Tell Them The Target Outcomes
Empowerment needs vision. What will success look like? What are we looking to have happen? What observable outcomes will we see when it does? Stating simple, hard-edge, identifiable and measurable outcomes will help everyone be crystal clear about where their efforts should always lead. State these observable outcomes in no uncertain terms, using action verbs: "We want to see..." "We want every customer to get ..." "We want everyone in the company to do..." Describe results that are visible immediately, in the moment. (Do NOT use language like "We want to ensure / grow toward / maintain / benefit / make it possible for / enable, etc. Those words are okay for mission statements, but not for outcome statements.) And by the way, desired company-wide outcomes should be whittled down till they are simple, succinct, and few in number: three or four at most. Otherwise people will be too hazy about the main vision to ever find it, much less fulfill it.
2. Give Them Permission To Aim For The Outcomes
Empowerment requires ownership. If employees are in a fear-based environment, they will stay frozen. Where the power structure can act capriciously to blindside workers with disastrous consequences for the least little thing that they do out of line, those workers will always stay far within the lines to avoid the dreaded repercussions of overstepping. This is great for compliance, but bad for problem-solving. When contingency situations arise that require workers to think outside the box, workers in a rules-based culture will remain firmly in the box, in order to prevent anyone from punishing their initiative. But if employees know what success looks like, and if they are given clearance to act in ways that promote that success, even if there's nothing in the rule book to back them up, then they will often save the day by taking action based only on the strength of their spur-of-the-moment discernment.
3. Reassure Them That Their Efforts Will Be Supported
Empowerment requires back-up. If workers know what success looks like, and feel that they have permission to act autonomously to achieve success, they will come up with creative solutions. But what if those solutions fail? Employees need to know that their manager will come alongside them and defend them to the powers that be, as long as their actions stem from the desire to achieve success. When you give permission to act freely within company parameters, you must also pledge your loyalty to your employees. You must continuously give the message that if anyone on your team does what he or she thinks is right, based on company goals and values, you will run defense for them if their actions are called into question.
The Price of Empowerment
If all this sounds like a lot of communicating from management, it is. Empowerment starts with you and what you say every day. You need to use your own organizational-specific terms to clearly frame the three messages described above in words your team will understand with great clarity. Then you need to deliver them constantly and consistently:
- in formal meetings
- on the shop floor
- in emails
- in employee publications
- on the PA system
- during hallway conversations
- in the midst of idle banter
- over the phone with your remote workforce
- at your one-on-ones with your office team
In short, you need to deliver these same messages in all your interactions to ALL your staff, from direct reports to those who are two or three levels down.
For more about cultivating a culture of empowerment, I highly recommend a new book by one of my favorite communications gurus, Patrick Lencioni, called The Advantage. I just heard him give a presentation on this book last Friday at the Global Leadership Summit, and it sounds intense, scary, and wonderful.
Actually, those three words -- intense, scary, and wonderful -- can also describe the journey toward true employee empowerment. It demands a greater honesty, consistency, and attention to detail than most of us are willing to embrace. But the results are worth it. Do you have the courage and perseverance to transform your communication habits -- so that your employees can transform their performance -- and your organization can transform its future?