Employee empowerment can be a powerful tool for improving efficiency, innovation and employee retention, but it is only half of a successful team strategy.
Business requires balance. For example, a healthy work schedule requires a dynamic relationship between the amount of time spent on savings and revenue-generating initiatives, and managers are often guilty of overestimating one or the other. As the saying goes, you cannot shorten your path to prosperity, but obsession with the pursuit of growth can also be unprofitable. The role of senior management is to ensure that these efforts are proportionate.
Another vital balance that needs to be struck is empowerment and accountability. In my 40+ years in business, I’ve learned that employee empowerment can be a powerful tool for companies looking to improve efficiency, innovation and employee retention, but I’ve also learned how disastrous situations can be when empowerment isn’t balanced with accountability.
The essence of inspiration
Essentially, empowerment is about giving employees control over how they fulfill their roles. Imagine Henry Ford’s employees at their posts on the Dearborn assembly line in the late 1920s. The company’s success depended on everyone doing something unambiguously and precisely at the right time, leaving little room for creativity or innovation. While most businesses do not require this level of control, it is often necessary for employees to follow processes that are solely designed by their managers. In such a culture, feedback is usually discouraged and innovation is not expected — this is not an environment for empowerment.
But when companies empower employees – giving them some control over assignments – suddenly there is a fresh voice in improving systems and optimizing results, and management’s focus shifts from overseeing tasks to setting goals and focusing on results. These techniques, which are often used in software development and production, allow project requirements and solutions to evolve based on feedback from team members. In such an agile environment, leadership ensures that teams have the resources they need to move forward by only intervening when they get stuck.
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Steps to take
As a business moves to a more empowered structure, communication is critical, including leaders sharing extensive information with employees about the goals they are pursuing, and expecting employees to share more feedback and ask for more advice. This requires leaders to have a higher level of transparency than they might be used to, but it will help them gain more insight into how projects are progressing. Other steps to ensure transparency include clarifying roles, delegating authority based on strengths, establishing feedback systems, and publicly recognizing employee efforts and achievements.
When dedication goes wrong
I have long advocated empowering work teams, believing that making people accountable and accountable just makes business better. Most teams know how to work with him and appreciate the trust you place in them. At Tenneco Automotive, Inc., where I was chairman and CEO from March 1999 to July 2006, our manufacturing plants have adopted a workforce empowerment concept called “self-service workgroups” to eliminate executives and managers. and allow employees to manage themselves.
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Delighted with the concept. I took over a Ford exhaust system in Smithville, Tennessee and trained it to be self-reliant. We spent money with outside consultants to build it up, and the whole process took about two and a half months to get everyone trained and the systems to work. After we started living with it, we were sure that we did everything according to the instructions and prepared everyone for success … but we were wrong. Within three months, serious problems arose that resulted in the loss of our “Q1 flag,” which is awarded to suppliers who have met or exceeded the product quality standards set by Ford.
Quite frankly, the idea turned out to be a failure. Our quality rating was in the trash and it took eight months to get it back. I regretted my decision, but tried not to miss out on the valuable lessons it taught. Overall, I have found that self-reliance is not for everyone; If employees just don’t want or have spent a lot of time learning to be self-reliant, it won’t be easy to succeed. I also found that such a program required additional management oversight, but in the end, even with training, our expectations were too high and our responsibility too low.
As I’ve learned the hard way, empowerment must be balanced with accountability; since employees are given more control over their work, they need to be given more accountability for the result. Take another look at the Henry Ford era: when Model A had problems, it was most likely a system error, not an employee’s decision. This is why such structures are so popular in business: when problems arise, they are easier to fix when everything is managed by the system. But in a culture that values empowerment, leaders take on the role of mentors rather than managers – they help employees evaluate how their efforts are moving the company towards its goals, which in turn fosters self-management and self-esteem skills.
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As with empowerment, communication is the key to accountability. When goals are clearly articulated and feedback is provided regularly, it is easier to assess whether employees have the understanding and resources they need to achieve their goals. Constant open communication also makes it easier to talk about efforts that are not being achieved.
Another key skill for leaders striving to balance authority and accountability is choosing when to respond to problems with attention only, not solutions. Of course, it is unwise to just ignore the problem, but if you are committed to creating a culture of empowerment, you cannot solve all the problems. Listen to your co-worker when he shares a problem, and then help him think through his own solutions by making sure he has the necessary resources. Then make them responsible for fulfilling the plan.
Empowerment balanced with accountability can help almost every leader, but is especially important for entrepreneurs. Don’t tie your venture success to understanding and innovation that only you bring; Employee empowerment may seem like a loss of control at first, but when combined with accountability, it can help build a company that benefits from truly collective forces and passions.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.