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May 5, 2023

Employee empowerment in the workplace: Leading with respect

Employee empowerment is vital to a successful management style. Explore how to lead with respect by using employee empowerment in the workplace.

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When you lead people at work, there are numerous strategies for encouraging growth, productivity, and success. You want the employees under your management to flourish, but each person’s needs are different. One employee may seek frequent contact throughout the day to get tasks done while another may want to work on tasks independently.

As a manager or executive, you need to balance between supporting your reports and avoiding micromanaging their work. On top of maintaining visibility on daily tasks, you also make high-level decisions for your work, your team, or your organization. Research from McKinsey “found that decision making takes up a huge proportion of management’s time—as much as 70 percent of it for some C-suite executives.” While not all team managers are CEOs, this statistic speaks to a wider problem among leadership: handling all the decisions yourself comes at a cost.

That’s where employee empowerment comes in.

Regardless of an employee’s management preference, the challenge, responsibility, and freedom of more independent work benefits everyone involved. Managers free up time otherwise spent on frequent check-ins, and employees have the freedom to handle tasks from beginning to end with more autonomy.

What makes an employee empowerment leadership style different?

The key method that differentiates an employee empowerment leadership model from others is it’s focus on autonomy. By liberating employees from what they might perceive as constant communication or overinvolvement, supervisors set a precedent of trust.

In discussing employee empowerment, the Harvard Business Review pointed out that “creating more autonomy involves shifting power from the top and center of the organization to the front line by empowering people to make decisions.” Traditional workplace hierarchies place visionary ideation and decision-making at the top, with varying degrees of power trickling down to the managers below.

However, employee empowerment levels the playing field. Instead of a select few making decisions that affect larger employee subsets, team empowerment gives decision making authority to the employees themselves.

How does employee empowerment cultivate respect?

Performance is a significant part of every manager-employee relationship. But performance management doesn’t have to focus on annual performance reviews or task completion. It can incorporate future-oriented discussions like goal setting and skill development. And one way to grow skills in your workforce is through on-the-job learning where employees handle their own decisions.

Employee empowerment is all about letting go in a dance of trust and respect. As a leader, you trust your employee to make the best decisions using sound judgment. And in turn, employees respect the space they’re given by dutifully handling projects on their own. In fact, researchers writing for the Harvard Business Review found that “by empowering their employees, these leaders are also more likely to be trusted by their subordinates.”

Empowerment builds respect, which inspires hard work. And that hard, trustworthy work reinforces the empowerment with more autonomy. Leaders and employees can work round and round this cycle until a sturdy, trust-filled working relationship forms.

Ways you can begin empowering your employees today

1. Start letting go of small decisions

As the old adage goes, every journey begins with a single step. And that first step toward team empowerment is letting go of small decisions. Regardless of where you fall on the leadership spectrum from relaxed team leader to detail-oriented manager, there’s always a way to empower your employees to own their work. Empowering employees, especially in remote contexts, can help people show their work ethic and demonstrate their capabilities. As time goes on, these small decisions can grow into larger ones until an employee becomes meaningfully self-sufficient and ready for a leadership role of their own.

2. Create space for growth and change

Our 2023 Pulse of Talent research report found that 90% of respondents have felt stuck in their job in the last year. When asked what their employer could offer to encourage them to stay, 52% of respondents selected personalized growth plans and training opportunities. Further, 51% selected opportunities to change career paths within the company. These statistics portray a deep desire for career flexibility and internal mobility, both of which require a level of empowerment from their current boss. Be the supportive manager your employees need and create space for growth and change.

3. Pull people into bigger decisions

Employees who aren’t middle managers or above often watch decisionmakers through a glass wall. Organizational barriers keep lower-level employees out of the room when important things happen. But your team doesn’t have to operate with this strict hierarchy. Act as an empowering manager and pull your people into bigger decisions as much as you can. When the time comes to inform higher-ups and make final decisions, being at the table matters.

Employee empowerment is good employer branding

Whether you’re a middle manager, HR leader, or C-suite executive, you have the opportunity to empower those that report to you. By giving decision-making authority to more and more people, you can build a culture of trust where competent co-workers can effect change. Team empowerment can grow from one department to another until your entire organization is working at peak performance, which can further develop your employer brand and drive your bottom line.

As a leader who’s used to the power of management—however limited that may be—try to remember how it felt when a past boss gave you a chance to prove yourself. Your career growth didn’t happen overnight. It likely involved your leaders giving you increasing amounts of responsibility through gradual empowerment. Why not give someone else that same opportunity? Better yet, why not be known as a person and an organization that empowers people with chances to succeed?

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