6 min read
Employee Empowerment: Pros and Cons They Don’t Tell You
By: Michelle Bennett on Mar 21, 2023 5:00:00 AM
Leadership and decision-making go hand in hand. From the small day-to-day choices that need to be made to long-term considerations that require deliberate evaluation, decision-making is part of effective management.
One area requiring constant evaluation for new and seasoned leaders is how to lead your team, and a hot topic of debate is whether a leader should empower their employees. In this blog, you’ll find the definition of employee empowerment along with the potential pros and cons of empowering employees.
What Is Employee Empowerment?
It is the degree of autonomy, authority, and control employees have over their work. When an employee is empowered, they can act independently to make decisions and act on them.
✅ Pro: Employees Want Autonomy
The fallout from the pandemic added fuel to the fire that started before 2020; employees want to be empowered to have autonomy over how and when they work. A 2021 article in Harvard Business Review said: “For organizations looking to remain competitive in the hybrid future, enabling and empowering employee autonomy will be the single most important enabler of flexibility. By ditching policies for principles, investing in competence and relatedness, and giving employees the tools they need to do their job well regardless of location, leaders can create a culture of autonomy and flexibility to the benefit of the organization, teams, and individual employees.”
In addition, a study from the University of Birmingham supported the notion that employees crave autonomy. It found that leaders who granted their employees higher autonomy over their work had higher levels of job satisfaction and overall well-being.
❌ Con: Empowerment Without Accountability is A Disaster
Empowerment is a powerful motivator and driver of work satisfaction, but it can be disastrous without accountability. If employee empowerment is not tightly linked to an employee's acceptance of accountability, you may be setting yourself up for failure and costly errors.
Accountability is accepting responsibility for decisions that lead to an outcome. It is making a promise, following through on it, and taking responsibility for the actions that either led to achieving or falling short of accountability. So if an employee has the autonomy to make decisions without a tie to owning their choices and delivering the desired outcome, there is no central force linking them to a result the team and organization must achieve.
Want some tips and tricks on how to drive accountability on your team? Check out Niagara Institute’s A Leader’s Guide to Accountability in the Workplace.
✅ Pro: It Frees Up Your Workload
As much as empowerment of employees requires more time in setting boundaries and expectations in meetings and providing coaching, it also frees you up by delegating work to your team. Empowerment and delegation are two peas in a pod.
By delegating tasks and projects to employees, you’re essentially empowering them to take ownership of their assignments. Now your focus and time can shift away from doing the work to managing their progress.
If you’re unsure about the best way to delegate tasks, we’ve created a step-by-step guide for leaders to become master delegators. It’s packed with tips, tricks, and templates to determine which tasks to delegate, who to delegate to, and how exactly to do it.
❌ Con: Employees Cannot Be Empowered in All Work Environments
Staff empowerment isn’t for every type of role or work environment. For example, there may not be much room for job empowerment in positions where following specific steps and process is critical to safety and a positive outcome.
Brad Kirkman, Professor at Poole College of Management, explains why. “Research has shown that strategies like empowerment or self-management only really pay off when the work employees are doing is complex. In other words, there has to be enough “room” for the employees to exercise their empowerment, or else they view it as a waste of time. Clearly, empowering someone to do a relatively simple, routine job doesn’t really do anything for their motivation. The job is already controlling what they do anyway, so there is no room for empowerment to flourish.”
✅ Pro: It Challenges Employees
Empowerment is a double-edged sword for employees. Yes, they get new levels of freedom, but they are now required to make decisions that test their judgment and skills.
Empowerment encourages skill development and fosters growth as employees must uncover solutions, seek advice, and formulate decisions to drive actions toward achieving an outcome. In the process, empowered employees grow their self-confidence as they leverage their strengths and new skills, which pushes them to continue to grow and develop to achieve more significant accountabilities—a win for the employee, their team, and the organization.
❌Con: It Requires Developing New Leadership Competencies
To be done well, employee empowerment may require the development of new competencies for leaders. While developing new leadership competencies is always good, leaders should not start empowering employees blindly. It’s important to gain these skills before granting a new level of autonomy. Here are seven competencies leaders need to empower employees.
- Setting boundaries, expectations, and feedback
- Delivering feedback
- Building trust and fostering open communication
- Communicating the team and organizational purpose and vision
- Providing coaching
- Delegating tasks
- Leading one-to-one meetings
Setting Boundaries, Expectations, and Accountabilities
A core principle of employee empowerment is communicating boundaries upfront so individuals know how much freedom they have and when they need to tap into your expertise. Moreover, expectations and accountabilities must be agreed upon by both the employee and leader.
Empowering employees in their roles to do their very best work requires having honest conversations about their progress and performance, and constructive feedback is the mechanism to do so. Therefore, developing the skills to deliver feedback in a motivating, not criticizing way is an essential leadership skill needed to empower employees and teams.
Building Trust and Fostering Open Communication
Mutual trust is central to empowerment. The leader must trust the employee that they will stay within their boundaries, meet their accountabilities, and tap in when they need help. Likewise, the employee must trust their leader will provide coaching, feedback, and resources they need to be successful.
Trust starts with the employee and the leader creating a safe space to have open communication, where they can be honest and vulnerable. Conversations touching on fears, challenges, and opportunities for empowerment get both parties on the same page and build a deeper understanding of both perspectives.
Communicating the Team and Organizational Purpose and Vision
The company and team purpose and vision should be crystal clear for empowered employees, who will need to use both to make sound decisions. Leaders should continually communicate and reinforce the purpose and vision as it highlights why their work matters and focuses on ensuring their actions align with goals.
The great thing about empowerment is it creates new opportunities to have coaching conversations that support an employee’s development and growth. However, to be done well, the leader must have the skills to evaluate and communicate where an individual is currently performing, where they should be, and how they can grow and develop to reach their potential.
Learning the skills to delegate tasks and projects effectively is central to empowering employees. Knowing what tasks can and should be delegated and how to ensure they’re followed through is essential skill leaders need for effective empowerment.
Leading One-to-One Meetings
Running productive one-to-one meetings is a skill all leaders need, but it becomes even more critical in teams where individuals have greater autonomy. These touch base meetings are an opportunity to provide feedback and coaching, get status updates, and help remove any roadblocks employees are experiencing in aching their accountabilities.
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