Once employees know how their work contributes to the greater good, they become more engaged in their work.
Some of the most successful organizations in the world have the most engaged and empowered employees. Companies like Zappos, Four Seasons and Disney come to mind when talking about employee empowerment. These companies have built their brands on the power of their employees, all of whom carry the brand into their everyday interactions with customers and each other because they have been entrusted and empowered to do so.
As a leader of a customer service-focused company, you probably wonder how you can take what these companies have learned about employee empowerment and create similar experiences for your company and your customers.
While empowering your employees makes total business sense, it can be a tricky path to walk. Here's how to foster a culture of empowered employees to help build a business that you can sustain well into the future.
Why empowered employees matter
Allowing employees the opportunity to feel empowered should be a no-brainer for any business Businesses live and die by their employees, and many times success is directly related to employee satisfaction, engagement and empowerment.
Empowering your employees not only allows them to feel proud of the work they do, loyal, and even committed to doing more for the company, but in the long term, it can also be incredibly good for the bottom line. A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that when employees feel empowered in the office, they are more likely to have higher job satisfaction, greater commitment to the organization and improved job performance.
Engaged and empowered employees are more vigilant and aware of the needs of the company as a whole, their customers and their co-workers. That, in turn, creates a sense of community and fosters both diversity and inclusion – something I have written about extensively – and something that research shows extensively benefits companies, both large and small.
The truth is the cost of employee apathy is high: A 2017 study by Gallup shows that disengaged, unempowered employees cost companies between $450 and 500 billion in lost productivity per year. A quick breakdown of the math by Forbes shows that every $10,000 in annual salary paid to a disengaged employee costs companies $3,400. If the U.S. worker makes a median salary of $47,060 (according to recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics information), just one disengaged worker costs a company an average of $16,000 per year in lost productivity. Multiply that by how many employees you have, and the numbers quickly add up.
When employees feel they have control over the trajectory of their careers and their work, they are more likely to do better and more creative work for your company, go above and beyond their job description, and stick with you through thick and thin. The benefits of having empowered and engaged employees are clear.
How to create a culture of empowered employees
While empowering employees can be a somewhat nebulous goal and often tricky to measure, it can be done. It is important to realize that there are certain situations in which empowering employees helps improve business performance and others on which empowerment has no bearing.
A 2017 metastudy by Harvard Business Review (HBR) shows that leaders who make employees feel empowered have more creative and helpful workers, but that doesn't necessarily mean improved routine task performance.
All that being said, here are five steps you can take to empower employees in your organization, regardless of how large or small it is.
Get clear on your corporate culture and how it aligns with employees' roles.
To get clear on your corporate culture, it's important to know and identify both the core tenets of your company's culture and your business goals. Are you determined to provide the best product? Focused on creating the best customer service? What drives your company? What is at its heart?
Once you have identified what your corporate goals are, you can then break them down into smaller sections and show how each employee or business line contributes to those core goals. As HBR points out, once employees know how their work contributes to the greater good, they are more likely to feel ownership over their contribution, and that, in turn, makes them more engaged in their work.
Allow for the flow of ideas both up and down the chain.
One key way to create a culture of empowerment is to allow for an exchange of ideas both up and down the chain of command. Specifically, you must ensure that employees and leaders have a safe space to suggest ways to make things better. The impact can be significant, and it can help companies both large and small solve problems in a constantly evolving way.
A few options to try might be to host "big-idea" events where people can share their ideas in open forums. You could also offer employees an improved "solution box," an online platform where they contribute ideas for ways to solve company problems or offer constructive criticisms with plausible solutions.
The key here is to ensure that any complaint or challenge raised by an employee or leader comes with a proposed solution. This will give all employees the chance to have ownership over both problems and solutions and create an environment of empowerment.
Be willing to let go of control (at least a little).
Every executive or business owner works very hard to hire the very best employees. We trust them to do the jobs they are hired to do, but many leaders struggle to give employees full autonomy over significant projects. At the same time, it's common knowledge that micromanaging kills productivity, engagement and employee happiness, so how do you strike a balance?
A key part of ensuring success is knowing when to let go, at least just a little. By relinquishing control just a bit (and not being a micromanager), you encourage a sense of autonomy and ownership. In fact, allowing for this kind of autonomy can improve employee retention considerably, according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
You allow employees to own both their successes and their failures, which, in turn, creates a sense of empowerment and engagement. By letting at least some control go, you ensure that you are creating an environment where employees can invest in their growth as well as in the growth of the company.
Provide clear paths for growth.
Part of creating an empowered workforce means offering clear paths for both personal and professional growth. A big part of employee happiness and empowerment stems from providing clear paths to advancement. As human animals, we are constantly striving for ways to improve our minds, so when you offer opportunities for employees to learn and grow, you serve a basic human need.
The alternative does nothing but hurt your business. Without a clear path forward, an employee will stagnate and eventually leave your business, or become one of those unengaged workers who cost your business tens of thousands of dollars per year. In fact, a 2015 Randstad study shows that most employees choose to depart a company because they don't have a clear path to growth. Providing for employee education and growth is a simple way to foster a culture of empowered employees.
Recognize more than just the bottom line.
As I have written before, it's crucial to recognize employee contributions beyond just how they impact your bottom line. This helps prevent burnout and encourages employees to continually improve performance and engage in the workplace.
It's important to recognize more than just concrete results. Why? Employees look to their bosses and leaders to provide guidelines and model behaviors that they then emulate in their own interactions. When they see a manager encouraging effort and work ethic, they are more likely to work hard and contribute more. As this story from HBR shows, it pays to create a culture of recognition to retain the best employees.
The bottom line on creating a culture of empowered employees
Ultimately, empowering employees is not just about giving people additional responsibilities – it's about giving them the feeling of empowerment and allowing them to act on it. The five steps outlined above contribute to employees' psychological empowerment, which is made up of four distinct factors: meaningful work, autonomy, competence and growth. By following the five steps above, you're sure to create a culture of empowered, productive and, ultimately, happier employees.