The term “empowerment” rose to prominence in the late 1980s and saw considerable use through the 1990s in conjunction with the total quality management (TQM) movement. Its use has been so widespread that the term itself has become a buzzword. We’re told repeatedly that we must empower employees to enable them to make their best possible contributions to organizational success; we’re told this as though it were something new, some late-twentieth-century discovery.
The verb “empower” contains its own simple definition: to give power to. A look into any dictionary or thesaurus reveals that one of the several synonyms for “empowerment” is “delegation.” A similar look at “delegation” shows “empowerment” as a synonym. Delegation and empowerment have essentially the same meaning, yet many present day experts tell us: Don’t just delegate to employees–empower them.
Although empowerment may be described in a variety of ways, its essence remains giving employees control of their jobs and letting them make their own decisions and solve their own problems. Therefore, there’s no difference between empowerment and proper delegation. Therein lies the problem; delegation has been so widely misused and abused that the term itself has become hopelessly tarnished. The conscientious delegating manager—or honest empowering manager—clearly defines employees’ limits and keeps hands off as long as they operate within these limits and deliver the expected results.
Although delegation and empowerment have essentially the same meaning, in practice they’ve been viewed quite differently. With empowerment’s prominence as a buzzword, some people are behaving as though this concept is a vast improvement over mere delegation. But if the concepts are really identical, what happened to delegation?
What happened to delegation took decades of regarding it as little more than assigning work to employees. Proper delegation, however, has always consisted of making workers responsible for task completion and also giving them the resources and authority required to complete the tasks. True empowerment is identical to proper delegation: you give an employee a problem to solve or a task to complete, specify the desired outcome, and provide the authority and resources necessary to get the job done.
The problem at the heart of most difficulties with delegation—or empowerment—is a problem of management style and approach, and it’s a control issue with those managers who have difficulty surrendering control over task performance. Some managers can’t let go sufficiently to allow delegation or empowerment to work. Their still-authoritarian management style sends a contradictory message to employees: You’re free to do whatever you need to do, as long as it’s the same thing we would do.
Whether it’s called delegation or empowerment, the process will work as intended only if the manager commits in advance to accepting the employees decisions and results. Sound risky? Sure it does; as a manager you remain responsible for the results your employees achieve, so you have a strong interest in making certain they do what they’re supposed to do (surely this is why so many managers are reluctant to relinquish any measure of control).
Know your employees well. Know their strengths, weaknesses, capabilities, and limitations. Know what they can and can’t do; know them well enough to be able to judge which of them should be given what assignments.
Teach them what to do and how to do it. This is one of the weakest points in the delegation process as usually practiced; some managers tend to make an assignment and move on with inadequate attention to preparing the employee, when in reality this step can be time-consuming. The manager’s “reward” of time saved comes well in the future; to save time in the future usually requires spending more time in the present.
Provide all the authority necessary for task completion. Empowered employees should command all the resources needed to get the job done.
Define limits and expectations. This is crucial; employees need to know precisely the results you’re looking for and how far they can go in achieving those results. Focus on results; within reason, you needn’t be concerned with all the steps taken to achieve those results.
Turn them loose. Once you feel that they know what’s to be done, when it’s to be done, and what results are expected, let them do it. Be available to provide advice and assistance as needed, but let them come to you. Don’t hover and don’t micromanage. Don’t intrude uninvited unless you see something going so wrong that it can’t be left alone.
In brief, true employee empowerment consists of educating employees in specific essential tasks, giving them what they need to get the job done, defining expected results, and turning them loose and staying out of their way unless your help becomes essential.
by Charles R. McConnell
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