Employee empowerment can be a powerful tool for improving efficiency, innovation and employee retention, but it’s just half of a winning team strategy.
Business requires balance. For example, a healthy work schedule requires a dynamic relationship between the amount of time spent on cost-saving and revenue-boosting initiatives, and leaders are often guilty of overemphasizing one or the other. As the saying goes, you can’t shrink your way to prosperity, yet a fixation on chasing growth can also be unprofitable. The role of senior leadership is to make sure that these efforts are in proportion.
Another vital balance to achieve is between empowerment and accountability. In my more than 40 years of leading businesses, I’ve learned that employee empowerment can be a powerful tool for companies seeking to improve efficiency, innovation and employee retention, but have also learned how disastrous it can be when empowerment is not balanced with accountability.
The essence of empowerment
At its core, empowerment is about giving employees control over how they carry out their roles. Picture Henry Ford’s employees standing at their posts on the Dearborn assembly lines of the late 1920s. Company success depended on each doing one thing in a precise way at a precise time, with little to no room for creativity or innovation. While most businesses do not require that level of control, it’s not uncommon to require employees to complete processes that have been developed exclusively by their managers. When that’s the culture, feedback is usually not welcomed and innovation not expected — not an environment of empowerment.
But when companies empower employees — give them some control over how assignments are accomplished — there’s suddenly a fresh voice in refining systems and optimizing outcomes, and the focus of management moves from overseeing tasks to defining goals and staying focused on results. These techniques, which are often used in software development and manufacturing, allow for project requirements and solutions to evolve based on feedback from team members. In such an agile environment, management makes sure that teams have the resources they need to move things forward, stepping in only when they encounter an impasse.
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In the course of a busines shifting to a more employee-empowered structure, communication is critical, including leaders sharing with employees ample information about the goals they are pursuing, as well as expecting that employees will share more feedback and solicit more advice. This requires a higher level of transparency from leaders than they might be accustomed to, but it will help give them additional awareness of how projects are proceeding. Other transparency steps include clarification of roles, delegating based on strengths, establishing systems for feedback and publicly recognizing the efforts and accomplishments of employees.
When empowerment goes wrong
I’ve long championed the empowering of work teams, believing that giving people responsibility and accountability simply makes a business better. Most teams can run with it, and appreciate the trust you put in them. At Tenneco Automotive, Inc., where I served as chairman and CEO from March, 1999 to July, 2006, our manufacturing plants utilized a concept of employee empowerment called “self-directed work teams” — their goal to eliminate supervisors and management and allow employees to manage themselves.
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Excited by the concept. I took a plant that produced exhaust systems for Ford in Smithville, Tennessee, and trained its employees to be self-directed. We spent money with outside consultants in ramping it up, and the entire process took about two and a half months to get everyone trained and systems working. Upon going live with it, we felt pretty confident that we’d done everything by the book and had prepared everyone for success… but we were wrong. Within three months, major issues surfaced that resulted in us losing our “Q1 Flag”, which is issued to suppliers who have reached or surpassed the product quality standards established by Ford.
Frankly, the idea turned out to be a disaster. Our quality rating was in the garbage, and it took eight months to get it back. While I came to regret the decision, I made sure not to miss the valuable lessons it provided. Overall, I found that being self-directed isn’t for everyone; if employees simply don’t want to be, or haven’t spent significant time training to be self-directed, success won’t be easy. Such a program, I also found, requires additional supervision by management, but the bottom line was, even with training, our expectations were too high and our accountability too low.
Balancing with accountability
As I learned the hard way through those experience, empowerment must be balanced with accountability; as employees are given more power to control how they work, they need to be given more responsibility for the output. Looking to Henry Ford’s era one again: When a Model A had problems, it was most likely the fault of the system rather than a result of an employee decision. That’s why such structures are so popular in business: When problems surface, they’re easier to fix when everything is system managed. But in a culture that values empowerment, leaders take on the role of mentors, as opposed to managers — they help employees assess how their efforts are moving the company toward its goals, which in turn advances self-directedness and self-assessment skills.
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As it is with empowerment, communication is the key to accountability. When goals are clearly articulated and feedback regularly provided, it’s easier to gauge if employees have the understanding and resources that they need to hit their goals. Ongoing, open communication also makes it easier to talk about efforts that fail to accomplish them.
Another key skill for leaders as they strive to balance empowerment and accountability is choosing when to respond to problems with attention alone, rather than with solutions. It’s not wise to simply ignore a problem, certainly, but if you are committed to building a culture of empowerment, you can’t solve every issue. Listen to your employee as they share a problem, then help them to think through their own solutions, making certain they have the resources needed. Then hold them accountable for implementing the plan.
Empowerment balanced with accountability can help just about every manager, but it is especially important for entrepreneurs. Don’t tether the success of your enterprise to the insight and innovation you alone bring; employee empowerment may initially feel like losing control, but when balanced with accountability, it will help build a company that benefits from truly collective strengths and passions.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor
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