Are You Actually Willing to Empower Your Employees?

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Aug 25, 2021

Empowerment is one of those buzzwords that achieves near-universal plaudits. Of course, leaders want to empower their people. What kind of monster wouldn’t?

But as nice as empowerment sounds in theory, the reality is that giving up control is insanely difficult. In the business world, empowerment can mean giving up control of tasks, embracing an employees’ suggestions, or even using ideas that come from outside your current company. Essentially, if a leader is giving up control (whether that’s delegating, using others’ ideas, etc.), that’s empowerment.

Of course, you can probably guess what I’m going to say next. While empowering sounds good and beneficial, not many leaders are actually empowering their people.

In the Leadership IQ study, ”The State of Leadership Development,” we discovered that only 27% of employees say their leader always encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement. 

A critical aspect of giving up control is recognizing an employee’s suggestions for improvement. If a leader is able to say, “Your suggestion is actually better than what we’re currently doing,” then you know that leader is comfortable loosening their grip on employees. 

It’s not easy to listen to someone else’s idea and admit that it’s better than what we’re currently doing. Cognitive dissonance is the technical term for the unpleasant mental tension that occurs when someone holds two psychologically inconsistent beliefs. 

If I believe that I’m a really smart person and now one of my employees has an idea that’s smarter than mine, I’m going to feel some unpleasant tension. I believe that I’m smart, and yet I just learned that one of my employees is smarter. This cognitive dissonance will hurt my brain, and I’m going to want to reduce this unpleasantness, often by dismissing or attacking my employee’s proposal.

Leaders who empower their people, however, move through this cognitive dissonance quickly. Perhaps they feel a slight twinge of defensiveness, but it’s short-lived. Those empowering leaders are happier seeing their employees generating great ideas than they are ideating every innovation themselves.

We see a similar phenomenon occur with the utilization of ideas from outside the company. Some companies and leaders suffer from rampant parochialism, unwilling to entertain any suggestions or ideas that emanate from outside the enterprise. That’s why only 29% of employees say their leader is always open to using ideas/practices from outside the company to improve performance.

Empowering leaders, by contrast, are eager to adopt ideas and practices from outside their organization. This concept was the genesis of modern corporate benchmarking four decades ago when Xerox started visiting L.L. Bean to learn how to ship products faster. Yet, although generations of leaders learned this concept in business school, not many of them embrace outsiders’ ideas in their daily work lives.

To test whether you’re actually willing to practice empowerment, consider these three statements:

  • When employees give me alternatives, I avoid telling them which one I want. Instead I ask for their suggestions. 
  • I’m open to using ideas/practices from outside the company to improve our team’s performance.
  • I encourage and recognize my employees’ suggestions for improvement.

Rate yourself on these statements using a simple five-point scale (ranging from Strongly Agree at 5 to Strongly Disagree at 1). Then total up your scores. The closer you are to 15, the more likely you are to embrace empowerment.

Of course, you have to be brutally honest with yourself; it’s not tough to discern that the perfect leader will score a five on each question. This test isn’t tricky, but if you’re willing to assess yourself with fierce candor, you’ll discover where you struggle to empower. 

For instance, I may be willing to listen to my employees, but the moment I sense that these suggestions are coming from a dissimilar industry, I mentally disengage. Or perhaps I’m open to ideas from outside companies, but when a few of my employees make suggestions, it drives me nuts.

Regardless of the roots of my cognitive dissonance, if I’m going to empower my employees, I need to open myself to the possibility that people besides me have great ideas. Once I do that, I’m far more likely to willingly loosen control. And that is the key to effectively empowering your people.