Many organizations have been trying to shift from a model of authoritarian leadership to a model of worker empowerment. As firms are finding out, that transition is not an easy one to make. It requires new behaviors and new ways of thinking for both executives and employees.
The expansion of remote work during the pandemic only exacerbates the problem. Managers are tasked with ensuring flawless execution but are now physically less connected to their teams – and in-person, face-to-face time matters tremendously in relationships.
What is Empowerment?
Oftentimes, empowerment is misunderstood. It can be interpreted to mean that managers and leaders take a hands-off approach, effectively telling employees to sink or swim. That’s more like neglect. Empowerment is an active process. It involves coaching or teaching team members to self-serve, to become adaptive, to make decisions, and to use less of their managers’ time on things that really don’t require their managers’ attention.
Without training or guidance on how to empower, however, managers often simply stop providing direction and let employees figure out issues themselves. The problem: This rarely works. If employees don’t fundamentally believe that they should change and have clarity on what it is they are supposed to change, they can’t. Telling employees to figure it out on their may only slow down the learning and performance process – because employees aren’t necessarily learning.
The “neglect” approach creates a feedback loop that is very difficult to break. Employees who don’t know what to do may ask for help. But when they don’t get a clear, direct answer (like they are used to) they simply resort to past behavior. It’s a proven path that reflects a fear-based response; that is the opposite of empowerment.
Empowering employees means asking good, meaty questions that prompt them to think through the problem. For example, rather than saying: “The sales team needs to boost their numbers,” ask them and their leadership, “How can your team help increase sales by 3% in the next three-to-six months?” In this way, managers and leaders have a very different role: helping to define and shape the problem, so that a team is empowered to develop a solution. The destination is agreed upon, but the path to get there has yet to be paved. (The more tangible and measurable the goal, the more likely it will be achieved.)
Empowerment Presents a Challenge for Managers
Becoming empowered requires a mental shift for many people – leader, manager and employee. According to an ongoing set of surveys by Gallup since 2000, only 30% of employees, on average, are considered “engaged” in their work. As Gallup defines it, “engaged” means ”highly involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.” That number has been increasing in recent years to 35% in 2019, but the pandemic is expected to have a significant impact – and likely not for the better.
Using pre-pandemic numbers, Gallup also found that, over the same 20-year period, an average of 17% of employees are “actively disengaged,” which means they have very negative experiences at work and often spread that unhappiness and negativity to others. While that number has been dropping as well — it fell to 13% in 2019 — it still means that at least 1 in 10 of your employees is pulling down the ship. They don’t want to work, let alone be empowered and have to make decisions.
The remaining 50-60% (52% in 2019) are considered “not engaged.” These employees, according to Gallup’s definition, “are psychologically unattached to their work and company” and “put time, but not energy or passion, into their work. Not engaged employees will usually show up to work and contribute the minimum required.” That doesn’t exactly scream empowerment. They sound more like clock watchers.
Taken together, on average over the past 20 years, 70% of employees (65% in 2019), don’t want to be empowered – they barely want to work. That is a massive motivational challenge.
Engaging The Disengaged
Research has shown that motivational issues fall into one of three categories:
(1) performance, or the ability to master one’s responsibilities,
(2) organizational fit, or whether or not one feels accepted by their colleagues and able to contribute fully, and
(3) self-image, or what gives us a sense of gratification and self-worth.
The two-thirds of employees who are not engaged may be struggling with one or more of these issues.
Take Lisa, an operations processor. For the most part, her role is routine. A work order comes in, then she checks to make sure everything is filled out properly and that she has clear instructions to follow. If so, she performs the routine. If not, she sends it back, noting an error. It’s a straightforward process, much of which likely could be automated. But, because it is somewhat mindless, errors are not infrequent. Many layers of processes have been added to prevent mistakes from the past from happening again, so Lisa really has nothing to be empowered to do – unless her role changes or expands. In effect, Lisa’s managers are signaling to her (and colleagues like her) that she is not worth investing in – even though that is likely not their intent.
Lisa may be bored, feeling unable to live up to her potential through her limited role and exposure. She may not feel like she belongs in the organization or has been accepted by her colleagues, so she tries to make it through the day before going home to family and friends. She could be struggling with her self-image: If the work she does isn’t challenging or important, is she?
Without asking questions of Lisa and trying to understand her motivational issues, managers and leaders are likely to write her off, not recognizing the role they play when they design the work. As executives, we make up our own stories about the people who seem to struggle. They are lazy. They don’t get it. They don’t want to work. We rarely spend the time to help them uncover what they truly are struggling with. What manager is ever given that much time to devote to individual tutoring?
Empowering the two-thirds or so of employees who don’t really want to be empowered means getting to know what motivates them, what makes them tick, and using that to turn them into engaged employees. It’s an excruciatingly tough battle every day in the trenches — until the missing pieces fall into place for that associate. Once they do, you’ve helped that employee become adaptive for life. And your job managing them just became a whole lot easier.
As CEO of Magpie Insights, I help organizations develop strategies that are rooted in the capabilities of their people, improving the likelihood of successful change and execution. The results: higher profits, improved organizational efficiency, and greater employee engagement and retention. As a coach, I help executives become more empathetic managers and improve their adaptability and resilience as leaders. Prior to developing the Magpie approach to empathetic management, I spent nearly 20 years as a management and strategy consultant, entrepreneur, and financial services executive, while studying motivation through the lenses of psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, behavioral economics, leadership and negotiations.
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