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Empowered or Impeded?

Employees sometimes feel that as much as the employer or manager talks about empowering employees to autonomously make decisions and control their work, there just isn’t a framework or environment available to them to allow it to happen. To them, it’s all talk with no real attempt to create the type of work culture where employees feel comfortable taking action or making decisions.

Why does this happen? The reasons are varied and many and depend on the work unit or organization. In some organizations, many departments or teams have a very empowered group of employees while a few do not. In others, it is essentially an organization-wide issue.

In those where it is more widespread, it can generally be traced to top management. While they may talk about allowing employees a lot of freedom to act and make decisions, their actions say something much different. It’s usually a trickle down sort of thing whereby the manager has been questioned repeatedly about decisions or actions they’ve taken even though they were very reasonable and appropriate. When this happens, the manager becomes gun shy about taking initiative and then consciously or subconsciously passes that mindset on to his/her employees.

In organizations where employees in most areas really do feel empowered and free to make many decisions and take appropriate initiative, but in one or a few work units or departments there is a strong reluctance to do so, the problem can generally be tracked back to an insecure or controlling manager or team leader. So while the organization has created an overall culture of empowerment, the manager has essentially blocked that culture from infiltrating his/her work unit.

In some cases, the manager is fearful of taking action and making decisions and passes that fear on to his/her employees. In others, there is an overt attempt to block employees from being too empowered, likely as a means to bolster the manager’s sense of security. In either case, there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

When choosing competencies to use as part of performance reviews, we feel it is important to include at least one related to initiative or empowerment. What you call it and how you define it in your organization doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that all employees understand that they are expected to take appropriate initiative and make good decisions as they deem necessary and that the evaluation of their performance will include rating and discussing how well they either take initiative or how well they give initiative.

Establishing a culture that encourages initiative in terms of decision making and taking action is important to moving an organization forward. Without it, the organization will fall into some level of paralysis. It may not be significant or it may be crippling. How well does your organization promote empowerment?