Fostering Organisational Growth through Employee Empowerment: Insights from Organisational Development Practitioners
by Aoife Donovan Lee
Research suggests that employees who feel empowered are more committed to the organisation, demonstrate greater initiative, increased job satisfaction, better decision-making, and improved innovation (HBR, 2018). This means a rise in productivity, higher retention rates, and improved routine performance results for the organisation. This makes empowerment a strategic imperative for organisations. It is no surprise that organisations are becoming increasingly aware of the value of empowering their employees and are seeking training on this subject (Indeed, 2023).
For leaders striving to drive a more engaged and proactive team, empowerment is more than just delegating tasks or granting autonomy. Empowerment means trusting your team with responsibility and ensuring they have the tools, knowledge, and authority to make decisions. Creating an empowered workforce should involve employees in decision-making, give them more control over their daily duties, and obtain their input on policy changes (Indeed, 2023).
While the trend towards empowerment-oriented practices is growing, it’s essential to recognise that these practices are not universally adopted, and their implementation varies by organisation, industry, and region. However, as the benefits of such practices become more apparent, it’s likely that more organisations will continue to move in this direction.
This article aims to provide practical advice to OD practitioners considering empowerment interventions.
Employee Empowerment Origins
Employee empowerment initiatives have their roots in a confluence of management theories, cultural shifts, and evolving workplace dynamics over the twentieth century. For example, in 1960, social psychologist, Douglas McGregor introduced two contrasting theories about worker motivation and management styles in his book, ‘The Human Side of Enterprise.’ He labelled these theories ‘Theory X’ and ‘Theory Y.’ Theory X presents a bleak view of employees suggesting that they are intrinsically lazy, need strict supervision and avoid responsibility (McGregor, 1960). Managers who adhere to Theory X are more likely to favour an authoritarian style of management.
Theory Y, on the other hand, posits that people are inherently motivated to work, under the right conditions, and will seek out and take on responsibility (McGregor, 1960). Under Theory Y, the average person possesses ample creativity and imagination that can be harnessed for decision-making and problem-solving (McGregor 1960). Given these assumptions, a Theory Y management style is more aligned with a transformational leadership approach, where decision-making is decentralised and employees are encouraged to take ownership of their tasks, set their own goals, and find solutions to problems.
In the late twentieth century, organisations began to adopt flatter organisational models as they moved away from traditional hierarchical structures. There are little to no management levels between “superiors” and staff in a flat organisation structure. Like the Theory Y style of management, this approach lends itself to decentralised decision-making and greater employee empowerment.
Various organisations globally have adopted empowerment-oriented practices to boost employee morale, drive innovation, and improve overall productivity. While the extent and methods of empowerment might vary, these organisations are often recognised for giving their employees a higher degree of autonomy and decision-making authority. Some notable examples include:
Moving to a non-traditional structure, as these organisations have done, is not without risk, which we will explore next.
For managers, empowerment represents a moral threat (Pfeffer, Cialdini, Hanna, & Knopoff, 1997). The ability of managers to balance the organisational requirement for goal congruence with the possible loss of control inherent in empowerment techniques will determine whether employee empowerment is successful (Mills & Ungson, 2003).
Building trusting connections and establishing clear boundaries for empowerment have been demonstrated to be efficient strategies for lowering the likelihood of this form of moral hazard (Blanchard, Carlos, & Randolph, 2001); (Spreitzer et al., 2001).
Imposing empowerment on individuals simply serves to highlight their lack of control and the continued dominance of the authority figure (Spreitzer & Quinn, 2001). In short, most empowerment programs have been implemented in a way that is likely to disempower, rather than empower, employees.
Instead, managers should build situations that encourage self-reliance in people. It’s about releasing the power in the workforce so they can take initiative, feel trusted, be flexible, and do the right thing.
For the OD Practitioner
A common sentiment expressed by managers, globally, is that they are time-poor. They are overwhelmed by the feeling that they do not have the resources to manage their numerous responsibilities. From strategic planning to crisis management, the breadth of responsibilities can make it challenging to allocate sufficient time to each task. As a result, their time tends to be consumed with non-managerial tasks, with less focus on their most important role: fostering talent (McKinsey and Company, 2023).
McKinsey and Company’s 2023 survey found that middle managers spend three-quarters of their time focused on tasks not directly related to talent management. Strategy-focused tasks, such as creating work plans and supervising initiatives, is the area that managers most frequently perceived as having the highest organisational value (McKinsey, 2023) However, managers claim they spend, on average, less than twenty-five per cent of their time on strategy-focused tasks, and the value produced by these tasks typically necessitates adequately trained staff.
It is clear that empowering employees is a crucial practice for both freeing up the manager’s time, as well as developing the team.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The benefits of an empowered workforce are significant and many organisations have successfully created such an environment by employing a variety of different practices; Google, Zappos and Spotify (Forbes, 2013; HBR, 2016; HBR, 2017) being just three of these examples.
For OD practitioners, any learning initiative with the objective of building an empowered staff within an organisation must include the development of an empowered mindset.
Although managers and employees will have different learning requirements for the successful implementation of empowerment practices, this mindset work should be a common objective for all.
For the manager, the development of an empowered mindset is essential to mitigate the risk of the manager avoiding empowerment practices because of their fears (Mills & Ungson, 2003). For example, they may fear losing control. These fears should be explored with management participants in the training environment. Self-awareness work followed by the individual’s development of a tangible, measurable action plan post-training is vital.
For the individual contributor, the exploration of the definition of an empowered mindset is also crucial. New habits and thought processes should be encouraged, allowing employees to think outside of the confines of the specific requirements of their role. Employees should be incentivised to act with a leadership mindset and to develop the skill of creative thinking. They should be equipped with knowledge, giving them a good grasp on what is happening outside of their team, and within the wider organisation. Better informed, they will be capable of making sound decisions, without always having to seek permission.
Ultimately, this cultural shift to one of empowerment must begin at the top of the organisation and it must be seen and felt at every level throughout. Regardless of the organisation’s industry or size, creating an empowered workforce will take more than simply increasing delegation or training managers on how to do this more effectively. Training, coupled with consistent practice, fulfilment of commitments and regular evaluation are what will see many organisations thrive on their empowerment journey.