The objective of empowerment is to enable someone (or everyone) on a team to be able to make the same decisions that the team leader (or CEO) would make.
Empowerment is difficult to implement. It is not as easy as the leader saying, “OK, everyone’s empowered. Do whatever you want. I’m taking a nap.” This would result in anarchy. Each person would be off in their own silo, potentially pulling the company in different directions.
True empowerment starts with the leader ensuring that everyone understands the corporate values and vision. Employees also need to know what processes are already in place. Ensuring work is consistent with the corporate values and vision is the reason why processes exist. An empowered employee needs to know how each process supports that corporate vision.
The leader must also provide direction on priorities of the company. It is easy to say in a mission statement that, “we will be awesome at everything, all the time”. In the real world, people are going to have to make compromises. The leader and empowered employees need to know what the priorities of the company are under various contexts. The true test of the integrity of a company is will all empowered employee come to approximately the same decision with the same information.
It is possible to test the level of empowerment in a team. You can quiz team members and leaders by giving them the same information and ask them to make a decision. Ask them to make a decision not based on their own person opinions and values, but instead make the decision based on the known values of the corporation (more on this later). If the information is equal, everyone should come to the same decision.
When there are disagreements, these are the most interesting times for the company and employees. Exploring the reasons for the differences is critical. It does nothing for the integrity of the company if people just “agree to disagree” or storm off. Empowered employees should be able to have a rational discussion on why they feel their decision best supports the values of the company. Discussing these differences thoroughly refines and matures the company vision and serves to remove ambiguity in priorities. Successful empowerment of employees leads to less conflict between employees, not more.
The values of the individuals that make up the company should align with the values of the company itself. Like differences between team members, addressing differences between employees and company is critical. Companies are usually open to adjustments to values and processes over time. Hiring of disruptive people challenges the status quo, and that can be a good thing.
Also, note that allowing employees to vote on an issue is not empowerment. All that a vote does is allow personal opinions to replace corporate values. A team should be able to discuss a decision at hand within the context of corporate values and come to a virtually unanimous decision.
Implementing a “chain of command” is the antithesis of empowerment. Consulting an organizational chart to answer whom should make a decision is a red flag that employees are not empowered. Empowered employees, regardless of where they fall on an organization chart, should be making the same decisions.
Disagreements on priorities will occur between all team members from time to time and at all levels. Exploring these differences is critical even if the difference is between the CEO and lowest level of empowered employee. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that the CEO is always right, but there are many reasons why this may not be the case.
The usual reason why two empowered employees disagree is they are working with different information. Employees generally have more information relevant to the task at hand than the CEO. CEOs usually want to empower their employees because they acknowledge that they cannot know everything that all their employees combined know. It is impossible to grow a company if the CEO is required to know everything all their employees know and make all decisions. CEOs are human beings and have limits.
It is the duty of an empowered employee to test their assumptions on current priorities and corporate values against other empowered employees, especially their leaders. Leaders can make decisions that go against the corporate values all the time, usually due to missing information that only the employees know. It is the duty of the employee to correct this so that suboptimal decisions do not propagate.
Another reason why it is the duty of employees to understand and reconcile why their decisions are different from their leaders is to build trust. It is easy to follow the leader’s orders when they are standing over your shoulder. However, if the leader leaves the room or goes on vacation, they are expecting that their empowered employees will make the same decisions they would in their absence.
On a personal note, empowerment is the most important value I hold professionally. Not just that I am empowered, but also that everyone I work with is empowered. This goes back to my very first blog post from 5 years ago. That post discussed/ranted on the importance to know the reason “why” before implementing any customer enhancement request. Just because the customer orders this, is not enough. This post is similar in that the importance of knowing “why” for all work assignments. Just because the leader orders this, is not enough.
Although having empowered employees is very beneficial for the internal corporate culture, it has other benefits as well. Empowerment builds the integrity of a company. It ensures that everyone in a company hold the same values and ethics. It tests that regardless of which employee is assigned, the results will be consistent and to the agreed upon standards. This integrity will be visible to the company’s customers.
In addition, here is a great talk on empowerment: [link]. It is by David Marquet discussing empowerment on nuclear submarine in the US Navy. It is from 2016. It is a newer version of a TED talk from 2012. Please watch the newer video; I think it is better. However, do look at the tail end of the 2012 TED talk for great example of a great result from empowerment.