For employees to be empowered, they must have control of their immediate environments.
They must have the necessary mindsets and skill sets—either through hiring or training—to do their jobs effectively and authority to make decisions that maximize the quality, speed, and effectiveness of their work outcomes.
Following are ten key factors that must be present for employees to begin to feel empowered and act on doing what is right for themselves, their company, and their customers:
- Theory Y leadership. Company leadership must demonstrate McGregor’s Theory Y management style, in which authority is shared. Theory X leadership, in which all decisions are made from the top down, and cultures in which employees are empowered to make decisions instantly in their realms of responsibility and expertise, are by default, mutually exclusive.
“The process of spotting fear and refusing to obey it is the source of all true empowerment.” -Martha Beck
- Redistribution of power. Per #1, senior managers must be totally committed to the redistribution of power and authority. This presents one of the greatest challenges to culture transformation. Theory X managers at every level of a company have significant difficulty giving up control over even small decisions.
- Bottom-up decision making. In the old bureaucratic control model, brainpower is assumed to be located only with management in the hierarchy. But this has proven not to be true. As customers have become more demanding, front-line teams have been tasked with responding swiftly to them. As a result, the emphasis moved in some companies from optimizing efficiencies from top to bottom to developing more flexible, innovative and responsible decision-making by close-to-the-customer teams. By default, visionary companies moved away from control and compliance management models to a greater emphasis on entrusting individuals and teams with expertise in their areas to act in the best interests of their companies and customers. In a more committed and empowered organization, front-line workers have the authority to halt a production line or solve customer complaint decisions on the spot, without getting okays from managers higher up in the hierarchy.
- Change in the roles of front-line supervisors and middle managers. Front-line supervisors and middle managers are often even more resistant than senior executives to change behaviors in service of moving a culture from one that is bureaucratically controlled to committed and empowered employees because they typically see the process as a threat to their own job security. And rightly so. Flattening of a major multi-layered organization does require a redefinition of roles—supervisors and middle managers must shift to acting as facilitators of the employees who report to them, and if they prove unable to perform in that role, must be reassigned.
- Wide information sharing. In the top-down control or bureaucratic model, communication with employees comes down from above via policies, manuals, and newsletters and bulletins. Information flows to all workers by past employees, supervisors, foremen and trade unions. In a culture of empowerment, information sharing must be a two-way street where all employees, especially front-line ones, must have the opportunity to express their ideas, visions, and grievances upward—openly, safely and independently. In controlled bureaucracies, any upward communication normally occurs through a supervisor, shop steward, or, in some, through a collective bargaining trade union.
- Mutual trust. Trust can be impacted in many ways. When all information is not widely shared with everyone, the employer sends the message that employees aren’t trustworthy. The same perception exists when employees are required to punch time clocks or when a tool crib is locked and can only be unlocked by a supervisor. If employees are to believe that decisions are made with consideration of their impact on everyone, the scourge of massive compensation inequalities, i.e., the failure of upper management and board members to share gains with all employees and the exclusion of upper management and board members from the “pains,” must be stopped. Employees aren’t stupid; they know exactly whose needs are prioritized and whose aren’t. Note: Where employees have been abused for years, changing the paradigm takes time.
- Job security. To be committed to improving the performance of any organization or business unit, employees need a reasonable assurance of job security. Companies where employees are laid off every time sales slow or quarterly profits look questionable do not provide that assurance. Instead, those companies convey a message that produces fear, mistrust, and territoriality. There’s a reason that companies that have “no layoff” philosophies have more committed, productive, and empowered employees than companies in which employee job security is not a core value.
- Small business teams. The quality movement did a lot to move companies toward using smaller work teams whose positions in companies were closer to customers. Thought leaders including Peter Drucker stressed the need for knowledge workers to be empowered with decentralized authority and more project-based teams. Smaller, cross-functional teams where the contribution of individual employees is valued and respected and members are accountable to each other discover solutions and implement them far faster than do company-wide initiatives.
- Delayering of organizations. When an organization is flatter—made up of fewer layers—communication generally improves. There is often more face-to-face communication and, by default, less distortion of what is communicated. Likewise, having fewer layers makes it easier to spread authority, especially at the lower levels. When each manager or supervisor has 12 to 20 people reporting to him or her, as opposed to three or four, micromanagement is less likely to happen. And, in a de-layered organization, the necessity for massive policy and procedure manuals are minimal—with only a few guidelines that guarantee fair and equal treatment of all employees.
- Training and pay-for-performance results. All employees, from the CEO to the most junior employee, behave based on how they are paid. When a company is transitioning from a top-down culture, individual contributors and teams must be trained not only in their areas of expertise, but to understand budgeting and interpret P&Ls and become conversant in project management concepts. With authority and accountability come responsibility—work teams will more often be required to develop businesses/new project plans, manage costs, and build business cases for new capital expenditures. Likewise, front-line supervision and general managers must be trained to serve as coaches and mentors. And, compensation for team members must be tied to performance, with bonuses and company stock options based on efficiency and profitability.
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For more information, see Fat Cats Don’t Hunt: Implanting the Right Leadership and Culture to Accelerate Innovation and Organic Growth.