Learn to achieve true empowerment at work

September 21, 2021 - 24 min read
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Empowerment in the workplace, how does it work?

What is empowerment?

4 levels of employee empowerment in the workplace

Strategies for empowerment

The dangers of unstructured empowerment

Empowerment drives diversity and inclusion

The role of company culture

Why is empowerment so important?

Empowerment. It’s a word often said, a goal, a value, a hallmark of modern leadership. Yet it may be one of those leadership principles that can be misunderstood and difficult to put into action. Especially, when we are talking about empowerment at work. 

If we consider the benefits attributed to empowerment, it’s easy to see why leaders talk about it so often. When a new leader (especially a new leader), or even better, an entire organization gets it right, great things can happen. Let’s take a closer look at how empowerment in the workplace plays out. 

Empowerment in the workplace, how does it work?

Empowering employees and teams at work doesn't happen overnight. But by implementing empowerment strategies, you can create a more engaging — and yes, empowered — company and workplace culture. Below are a few benefits you can expect to see. 

Engaged employees Work is interesting, dynamic, and exciting
Trust-based culture Increased trust in leaders and team members
Reduced stress and burnout Increased comfort in taking risks and making mistakes
Better performance Higher levels of motivation and productivity
Improved work environment Positive, joyful, and purpose-driven company culture
Job satisfaction Work is fulfilling, challenging, and meaningful to employees
Employee development Work provides ample opportunity for personal and professional growth

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Engaged employees

Employee engagement increases when team members have the freedom to define the “what” and “how” of their work. Employees are more motivated, satisfied, and better aligned to company goals

A trust-based culture 

Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s work on organizational empowerment shows that employees who work at organizations with cultures of empowerment have greater trust in their leaders. 

Reduced stress and burnout

Kanter’s work has also shown that an empowered environment can act as an antidote to high-stress conditions which can lead to burnout. At a company that emphasizes empowerment, employees learn to better stress management techniques

Better performance

Employees are often more productive when they are in charge of key decisions about their work. They are further productive when they are held responsible for their contributions.

Delegating tasks to team members enables them to have clear-cut, concrete responsibilities and track their progress at work more effectively. 

An improved work environment

A company full of empowered employees is far more likely to have positive and joyful energy in their environment. The workplace culture will foster autonomy, resilience, and purpose.

Job satisfaction

Empowered employees experience a high sense of self-efficacy at work. They feel unstoppable by the team members and managers. They feel confident in their contributions and their work is meaningful.

Empowered employees enjoy learning and unlocking their full potential. As a bonus, employee retention is likely to increase.

Empowered employees want to remain at work because their jobs enable them to develop.

Employee development

Empowerment leads to new challenges. Overcoming these challenges results in personal and professional growth, especially when leaders deploy coaches to support employees through new, sometimes uncomfortable learning curves.

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What is empowerment?

So what is empowerment?

The Oxford Dictionary gives us two definitions. They highlight why there may be some confusion about how to have an empowered team and culture.

Definition #1 – authority or power given to someone to do something

This definition implies that an individual is not empowered until the power is given to them.

Fred Kofman, executive coach, and author of Conscious Business, describes this view of empowerment as something to be conferred and withdrawn.

In his panel discussion at Wisdom 2.0 2014, Kofman speaks as a leader: “I empower you! Because I am so powerful that I can. And if you displease me, I can disempower you!”

A leader extending power to others can certainly be a form of empowerment. But it can also border on conditional, impermanent authority. Therefore, this would not be a meaningful form of empowerment in the workplace.

Imagine a workplace where we show up in the morning and check our empowerment switch. Am I in the “empowered” state such that I can move forward with my work?

Or am I in a “disempowered” state, meaning I no longer have authority or power? This isn’t likely to be a motivating, energizing, or high-performance workplace.

Definition #2 - The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.

This definition implies that the ability to be empowered lies within each individual.

It may be planted, like a seed. Perhaps the seed was there and needed encouragement and a bit of sunlight. In either case, once empowerment takes root, it exists in the individual. Others cannot retract it.

For empowerment to be meaningful, the work environment must encourage employees to learn to be strong and confident. Each individual must also know their own authentic powers and gifts. 

Managers who adopt an authentic leadership style can help individuals detect these. These leaders encourage their team members to show up to work as their true selves and acknowledge the worth of their individual contributions.

They must empower themselves from within to unleash them.

From within is important: that is where their true strengths and legitimacy live. These things are not conferred by others. But praise and recognition can be powerful in helping legitimize their quest to be self-empowered.

How does this look in real life? Consider this situation. Amalia was reasonably new in her role as a public relations manager, and because of the pandemic, she had struggled to feel engaged in meaningful work.

Then everything changed. The executive team wanted a fresh start with their PR strategy.

Amalia was told that she had a blank sheet and to propose what she thought best. She asked for any guidelines or limitations and was told there were none… you are the expert!

Amalia felt entirely empowered. She knew she had the skills and passion to put together a great plan. She threw herself into her work and presented her plan to her manager several weeks later.

But what she heard next was completely disempowering. “Thank you for the great work but we’re going in a different direction. Here’s what I want our plan to be. I want you to present this to the executive team.” It was disempowering and demotivating

Amalia couldn’t imagine supporting the plan in front of the executives when she believed there was a better answer. She was no longer invested in the success of the plan.

But, empowerment takes many forms. Drawing from within, Amalia has re-empowered herself. She is working towards her next goal…to find a company that will embrace her strengths and contributions.

So back to Kofman’s paradox.

The paradox is that the leader’s power is to create an environment where team members feel safe to empower themselves. Their power is not to strip power away from team members when the mood strikes. 

Kofman states that the heart of empowerment from a leadership perspective is to create a state of self-actualization. People achieve their legitimacy and uniqueness. They work to release their true strengths and gifts.

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4 levels of employee empowerment in the workplace 

Employee empowerment exists at multiple levels. The most common are:

Organizational Level  Managerial Level  Interpersonal Level  Individual Level
Company culture of employee engagement Managers encourage vulnerability, risk-taking, and  participation Team members lift each other up Holds oneself accountable for actions and input
Collaboration and interdependence across teams and departments Clearly communicate goals and vision with team members Coworkers give positive shout-outs and praise to each other Seeks more responsibility and agency
Positive recognition and constructive feedback for all employees Leaders and team members learn from each other Team members create opportunities that enable themselves and others to take on more responsibility Embraces challenges as opportunities for growth

Empowerment at the organizational level

This type of empowerment builds and encourages a company culture of high employee engagement.

Employees across teams and departments are held responsible for their contributions. They receive positive recognition. Teams and departments are encouraged to collaborate to produce their best work.

Empowerment at the managerial level

Empowered leaders do not engage in micromanaging or superiority. Instead, they recognize that they can learn as much from their teams as their teams can learn from them. 

They encourage vulnerability, risk-taking, and social connection with and among team members. They clearly and openly communicate their goals and vision so team members have the knowledge and confidence to work towards them.

Empowerment at the interpersonal level

Interpersonal empowerment surfaces in workshops and meetings where team members have opportunities to build each other up. 

An example is a “Star of the Week” bulletin board or Slack channel. It is an opportunity for employees to nominate team members to receive positive recognition for their valuable input.

Another example is a weekly idea pitch, where employees can showcase new ideas in front of an audience of managers and executives. 

Empowerment at the individual level

Empowered employees feel responsible for their contributions and seek out increased responsibility. They embrace challenging projects. They enjoy developing bold ideas and making crucial decisions that affect individuals throughout the organization.

Strategies for empowerment 

Leaders can take inspiration from these strategies to cultivate a culture of empowerment. 

Create an empowering environment by fostering trust and respect. An empowering leader is a wise teammate. They create the space where great work gets done. To become a teammate, leaders must truly know your team members, their goals, and their strengths. They must understand their sense of purpose and work to support them in achieving it.

Implement open and collaborative communication. 

For employees to be empowered, they must be part of the conversation. Employees must participate in discussions on achieving current goals and setting new goals. Doing so will enable them to develop a personal stake in these goals and successfully fulfill them. Employees should also be encouraged to participate in shaping new ideas and strategies. 

By being part of big-picture conversations, employees feel worthy and valuable to the team's success.

Align individuals to organizational goals. An organization still has a “why” that drives the work and value of the organization. Empowerment derives from having relevant information. 

To bolster empowerment at work, ensure team members understand the goals of the organization. Enable them to connect their contributions to these goals. Show them how and why their work matters. 

Provide feedback so they will know when they have been successful. Aligning individual and organizational goals means coaching team members to unleash their strengths in service of organizational goals.

Redefine accountability. Individual accountability is at the core of empowerment, but how we define it is important.  

Accountability here means a commitment to achieving organizational goals. But it also allows for risk-taking and new approaches that might lead to temporary setbacks and failures. Accountability includes supporting team members in learning from these moments. It means refocusing their efforts towards the goals using new knowledge and experience.

Practice self-awareness. A leader may discover she feels uncomfortable with releasing power to others.  Feelings like “what if they get it wrong?” or “I don’t feel like I’m adding any value” can be challenging for leaders who may then inadvertently act in a disempowering way.  Empowering leaders know themselves well. They keep tabs on their inner dialogue to guard against disempowering actions.

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The dangers of unstructured empowerment

While the benefits of an empowered organization are quite clear, there can be downsides. Be aware of these potential challenges:

Defining clear direction

To control and unleash the creativity and curiosity of the team means that a leader has to work harder than ever. They must provide guardrails, connect the dots between teams, and keep their eyes on the cohesiveness of the work.  

Often the team goals can be achieved in multiple ways, which may or may not be compatible with each other. The leader’s job is to foster collaboration. They are responsible for ensuring their team members can connect their input to the larger group and organizational goals. 

Wrangling appropriate skills and experience

Empowerment will take people outside their comfort zone.

Stretching and leaving one’s comfort zone and developing a growth mindset is necessary for empowerment. But leaders need to understand where each team member is at in their growth trajectory.

Only then will they ensure that members have the right level of support to grow without becoming completely lost or overwhelmed. 

Instituting guardrails and reserved decisions

Empowerment is not carte blanche. If this isn’t communicated upfront, team members may feel like they are being disempowered when the boundaries are applied. 

Most organizations have rules and boundaries. Some are imposed by regulations or external governance designed to ensure public safety, privacy, and financial and operational controls. 

Examples are industry regulatory bodies, securities bodies, spending authorization limits, hiring/firing authority, etc. It is important to clearly communicate where these guardrails lie and what decisions are reserved. 

Often, teams can be empowered to act within a sphere of influence. In this sphere, they can reasonably expect to understand the goals and dynamics well enough to make effective decisions.

The zone of empowerment can expand as the team or individual becomes more confident with decision-making authority.

Ensuring effectiveness

Empowering employees may slow things in the short term, especially if what they work on and how they do it has been very defined and controlled.

There will inevitably be some rework and miscues when multiple people start making decisions rather than just one. Be prepared for bumps. 

Longer-term benefits of empowered employees include increased effectiveness, better innovation, and improved customer satisfaction. Empowered employees also have the drive, energy, and capacity to develop new skills. These benefits can’t be achieved if a leader insists on using the same effectiveness of the old rigid system.

Providing clarity and confidence

Expose gaps in understanding and development needs by removing the structure of a leader (or process) dictating what to do.

Removing the structure of authority also tests the quality and clarity of the leader

Managers will find themselves drawing on their ability to persuade, coach, and influence their teams. A manager may discover that they don’t know the answers to how things should fit together to guide their teams. They will need humility to help the team. 

Empowerment drives diversity and inclusion 

As discussed above, empowering the workforce has benefits for the organization. It may be obvious, but true empowerment also benefits the individual.

Supported in the right environment, individuals exercising their empowerment have the opportunity to learn and grow faster, both personally and professionally.

For these reasons, empowerment is an important part of the diversity and inclusion conversation. The empowerment of women or other underrepresented groups is much the same as the discussion of general employee empowerment.

One of the primary differences is that leaders need to be more thoughtful about what else might be needed to create an environment that supports empowerment for different populations.  

For example, for years a significant part of women’s empowerment in business has been about access to dependable, high-quality childcare.

While many women in business don’t need childcare, and it is hardly just a woman’s issue, without childcare a significant percentage of women could not empower themselves in their careers, regardless of whether a manager was willing to yield more decision-making responsibility. 

Another way in which leaders have acted to create an environment of empowerment is to discourage the reimbursement of business expenses for networking or sales activities in venues that are gender-specific.

Equally, leaders need to be aware of specific actions or messages they send that might tend to disempower or undermine the environment of empowerment for various groups.

For example, if leaders are taking action to empower all employees, but every promotion cycle only one demographic or only alumni from one school are promoted, that would send a message that your empowerment only goes so far. 

Similarly, if only one type of plan or initiative is ever resourced, regardless of merit, that also undermines the environment of empowerment.

The role of company culture

Company culture has the power to make or break empowerment. It is the greater context in which empowerment operates. For empowerment to exist at the managerial, interpersonal, and individual levels, it must exist at the organizational level.

A supportive environment means not making one group overcome unnecessary obstacles to develop themselves and their confidence and adding in additional support, such as mentors or coaches. It means supporting innovation and wellbeing for every group at the onset.

Most importantly, leaders stay attuned to anything they do that might disempower people and adjust their approaches away from these habits. 

Why is empowerment so important?

Empowerment enables leaders and team members to live to their fullest potential and to own their own work. Leaders who build a culture of empowerment set their people up for success in three major ways by enabling employees to: 

  • Experience continual growth
  • Align their vision and values with organizational goals
  • Leverage failures into learning opportunities 

Empowerment is the capacity to trust ourselves to stretch into our full potential and the guidance to make it matter for the organization. It enables us to focus on our talents and gifts, joining them with those of others for the betterment of the team.

At BetterUp, we cultivate company cultures of empowerment by enabling people to discover their full potential. Surpass your limits, and empower your team members to do the same, today. 

Request a demo to find out more.

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Published September 21, 2021

Ian Munro

BetterUp Fellow Coach, PCC

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