Dr Bev Smallwood

Articles Library: Team Effectiveness

How to Empower Your Team

The late ‘80’s and ‘90’s saw self-directed work teams and empowerment take the organizational world by storm. Executives and managers were quick to add the buzzwords...empowerment …TQM…facilitation…to the vocabularies that rolled easily off their tongues.

“Empowerment” became an overused term, causing some today to reject its usefulness. However, the concept is foundational to team and organizational success in the new millennium.

What does empowerment” really mean? Maybe a starting point would be to define what it does not mean.

Many managers resisted the concept of empowerment, fearing that the result would be a state of anarchy in which employees would go their own way and do their own thing, and, to heck with company needs or manager’s wishes. Such a concern grew out of the “Theory X” assumption described by McGregor…that most people are basically lazy and not very bright, and that they need to be controlled, externally motivated, and constantly encouraged to do good work. Ironically, managers with those assumptions may have actually reaped some of the results they expected due to the phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Historically, their blaming and accusatory attitudes may have “trained” employees to be rebellious, fearful, confused, or apathetic. Consequently, these managers may not have diligently coached employees in the necessary skills nor given them opportunities for confidence building that helped them achieve and grow.

Empowerment does not mean that there are no standards, and that the organizational culture is “do your own thing.” Some companies have made mistakes in these areas, leading them to throw the baby out with the bath water when the “culture of empowerment” didn’t work.

However, the underlying principles still have relevance in our turbulent, changing workplaces today. The truth is, people still perform at their best when certain key elements are present in their everyday work experience. Let’s look at those together.

Putting Empowerment to Work Today

Generally stated, empowerment occurs when power is developed and increased through cooperation, sharing, and working together. It is a process in which the total power in a situation is enlarged not merely redistributed.

In today’s marketplace, companies must constantly “hear the customer’s voice” and adapt to meet the customer’s needs, both strategically and in moment-to-moment interactions. To accomplish this, employees must have the tools, the information, and the freedom to make judgments on their own within reasonable parameters. They must freed from the red tape that causes critical delays to both internal and external customers.

Four Essential Components of Empowerment

Along these lines, one of the clearest definition of empowerment I’ve found was authored by Fisher in his excellent book, “Leading Self-Directed Work Teams” (1993). Fisher described four essential components of employee empowerment. Like the four-legged chair with one leg broken, attempts at developing an empowered workforce with any one (or more) of the four parts missing are doomed before they begin. To be effective, then, employees must be given all of the following:

1. Authority. Employees need the latitude to take the initiative to solve problems. They need standing permission to improve processes and enhance service within certain parameters, without additional advice or permission from their manager. They must be able to bend the rules creatively within reasonable limits in order to satisfy a customers needs. Team leaders must prepare staff to make increasingly more important and responsible decisions.

2. Resources. A second necessary component of empowerment is resources; that is, employees must be given the means to carry out the authority they have been given. This can include such things as time, training, money in the budget, equipment, and personnel.

3. Information. In addition, employees require accurate and timely information to make good decisions. For example, to identify team targets for improving customer service, the customer feedback systems must be in operation so that timely data about customers’ perceptions are available. Further, this information must be given to employees to enable them to select these improvement goals that will give the customer the most perceived “bang for the buck”. In addition to customer satisfaction information, empowered employees must have the “business data” in a form they can understand so that they can not only see the big picture, but can also do team problem solving regarding how to contain costs, operate more efficiently, and generate more revenue.

4. Accountability. A factor which has received more and more attention as teams come of age is personal accountability for work. To fail to hold employees accountable is damaging to the organization and does not promote growth in the employee.

Is empowerment passé? I think not. Buzzwords come and go; principles remain. Empowerment is not simply a “touchy-feely” concept, but is a practical means of using the team’s resources to get the right things done.

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist and professional speaker who is the author of “This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen to Me.” Visit her website, www.DrBevSmallwood.com; or contact Bev at 601.264.0890 or by email, Bev@DrBevSmallwood.com. Also connect with Bev on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and her blogs, Shrink Rap and New Morning Devotionals.

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