First I'd like to say I don't use the word employee anymore. I used it in the title for the alliterative effects (and because unfortunately it is still in the nomenclature) but I believe the word employee should go the way of the Dodo along with terms like "works for me" and "under me." I prefer team. You don't see NHL/NBA/NFL/MLS coaches, managers, or owners calling the players employees. They understand that without the players they don't have a job. They are as reliant on the players as the players are on them. Before you blow me off as one of those new aged hippy managers, I encourage you to imagine doing your job with no "employees." Think about it. Just you. Alone. Doing e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g...
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let’s get back to the issue at hand. Empowering your team.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I didn't always feel this way. As a young manager, I was very much of the "I'm in charge. You do what I say. No questions." mentality. I didn't see anything wrong with that. I listened to what my manager said and I assumed that was just the way things worked. That view was very abruptly interrupted when the decision was made to have everyone review their supervisors. My reviews were horrible. Luckily for me, rather than an instantaneous demotion or termination, my manager sat me down and explained to me the importance of building consensus, instilling an ownership mentality, and empowering staff. (If you are reading this, thank you Lisa!) Since that day I have done endless research into the psychology of management and I could go on forever. However, this is a blog post and not a dissertation so I will keep it simple.
The first thing to understand is that empowerment cannot be thrust randomly upon a team if it is to succeed. It must be part of the culture of the organization. It is so much more than giving someone one project or task over which they have a certain degree of discretion. It starts by cultivating an environment where everyone feels their opinion is heard and seriously considered whenever it is proffered. A manager cannot dictate, micromanage, and ignore team members 99% of the time and then throw a project out there and expect autonomous decisions. By that time, the team has been conditioned to believe that the firm does not trust them or value their opinion. If they were shot down with no explanation the last time they spoke up, what makes them believe they truly have the right to decide something now?
In my experience there are three key elements that must be present in order to grow this type of environment.
1) Team members must be assured that someone is listening.
Sometimes I'm approached with an idea that won't work because of cost, compliance, or other complications. Nothing can be as detrimental to empowering a team as a lack of feedback to ideas that won't work. If someone comes forward with a plan, idea, or strategy but never hears anything back and doesn't see it implemented, they will not waste their time to do it again. If someone comes to me with an idea and it is determined that it will not be feasible to implement, I do my best to explain the reasoning so they know it isn't because the idea came from them. This not only reassures them that they have been heard but may also allow them to reformulate their idea in a way that will work.
2) Team members must be credited when their idea sparks change
Some the greatest organizational changes I have overseen have their roots in an idea from a teammate. The truth is, I'm usually not on the front line. I'm not on the phone with clients every day. They are. They know where the inefficiencies are located well before I do. It could be something as simple as "If you could find a way to get rid of X step we would be able to get that report to clients 20 minutes earlier." Or "Most of our clients don't want those paper reports anymore. If you could convince the rest of them to opt out, we would save a lot of money in paper, ink, and printer leases." These are real examples and really did allow us to cut cycle times and reduce costs. Even though the plan to effect these changes involved much more than that idea, they were the catalyst and I make sure to let everyone know that. Positive reinforcement will manifest itself in bolstered confidence, more ideas, and a better operation.
3) Team members must not fear change
I have a standing policy that if someone comes up with an idea that makes their position unnecessary, I will find a position for them somewhere else within the organization. In uncertain economic times this is extremely important. I have found that team members often hold back on great ideas that will make their job easier because they fear it will make them less useful. This mentality is not conducive to an empowered team.
After an empowered environment has been established, it is time to step away. What I mean is, the manager has to truly let the team be empowered. Unless there is something glaringly wrong that is going to do severe damage to the firm, it is imperative that the empowered team is not micromanaged. Provide feedback for certain, but do it in a way that does not bring anyone down. I like to use an adapted version of the improvisational comedy idea of "Yes, and..." The strategy is basically that you never say "no", "that won't work", or "I have a better idea." Instead, use "Yes, and..." to steer the team to their own realization of what you are seeing. Teach them to think like a manager and great things will happen.
I believe that every manager knows somewhere that they need to empower their team to make decisions, provide insight, and feel involved. Yet, with all of the other things going on, this principle often gets pushed down the priority list in the interest of expediency. It is the "I need to get this done now. I don't have time to explain this." mentality that we have all had. I implore you to resist this. Any decision, no matter how small, can have "butterfly effect" consequences which ripple throughout the organization. Now, I'm not saying that a staff committee should be formed every time you want to change office supply vendors. Rather, I'm simply positing that building an environment where everyone feels their opinion is sincerely considered and equally weighed can have wonderful effects for you and your organization.