Our Point of View

Encouraging Empowerment


How do leaders encourage empowerment? There’s a view that autonomy and empowerment will occur magically if management stops micromanaging and gives up some decision-making. We also tend to believe that empowerment or at least autonomy is always a good thing. 

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

What Do We Mean by Empowerment?

The dictionary definition of empowerment reads “authority or power given to someone to do something.” 

There are a number of problems with this definition. Empowerment does not require that power be “given.” In many cases, the team or the employee makes the decision to take action, improve a process, or create innovation. Empowerment is not given; it is recognized and encouraged.

Second, “to do something” is vague. Social scientists doing research on teams are much more specific. Empowerment has multiple facets. For employees to feel empowered, leaders must delegate most decisions and engage in shared decision-making for other decisions. Leaders should reserve for themselves a very small number of decisions. Autonomy in decision-making and input into other decisions is one facet of empowerment.

Empowerment also encompasses what social scientists call extra-role behavior or behavior that goes beyond the employee’s job description in ways that are useful to the organization. Examples of this would include challenging existing operational procedures to improve them, taking the initiative to work with others to improve the customer experience, or bending guidelines in ways that are helpful to the organization or the customer. 

Finally, empowerment includes employee innovation. Not all new products or services arise from carefully planned and sponsored corporate initiatives. Empowered employees sometimes recognize a need and create solutions without any corporate sponsorship in a formal fashion.

How Leaders Can Encourage Empowerment

Leaders can encourage empowerment in three ways. All three are needed for an organization where decision-making happens at the right level, and innovation can come from anyone at any level.

Create an Environment Where Taking Initiative is Rewarded

There is considerable research that correlates empowering leadership to employee performance, initiative, and innovation. However, social scientists have found that empowerment doesn’t inevitably lead to better outcomes. In some cases, employees report feeling vulnerable or incapable, and sometimes “overhelped.” There are several best practices for creating an environment where empowerment works:

  • Talk Less and Reward More—Leaders have to walk the walk rather than talk about empowerment. Leaders who talked a lot about empowering teams but were perceived as not actually doing so were seldom successful in achieving the results they wanted. In particular, publicly rewarding initiative is key to creating an environment where empowerment flourishes.
  • Allow for Failure—When employees make decisions or try out new things, some percentage of them will fail. Failure has to be OK. I love this quote from Vinod Khosla, the legendary investor and venture capitalist: “I don’t mind a 90% probability of failure if I have a 10% chance of … changing the world”.

  • Develop Trust – The research shows that there is a strong positive correlation between leaders who are perceived as empowering by employees and the positive outcomes of empowerment (employee engagement, innovation, fast decision-making). Developing this trust requires walking the walk, as suggested above, but it also requires listening. Leaders who gather opinions and information from subordinates are more trusted than those who spend all of their time imparting information.

Provide Information for Empowered Decision-Making to Happen

Empowered employees do require some information in order to make good decisions. For example, if employees are empowered to negotiate deals, they need information on the impact of pricing on profitability. Employees need to understand the changing goals of an organization in real time if they are to support these goals.

Support Personal Development Initiatives

Mentoring and personal development support are critical for employees to be successful when they are empowered. If employees don’t feel like they’re going to receive the coaching and support they need to make decisions, they may perceive the delegation of decision-making or taking on additional work as the leader avoiding the work or passing the risk on to them in a difficult situation. In many situations, a gradual movement from a centralized, authoritarian decision-making culture to a de-centralized, shared decision-making culture is more effective than an overnight shift.

Organizations should create mentorship programs that pair less experienced employees with seasoned leaders, fostering an environment where knowledge, skills, and organizational values are transferred. Personal development programs tailored to individual career paths can complement these mentorship initiatives and provide structured opportunities for skill enhancement and leadership training.

Empowerment Has Its Limits

Empowerment doesn’t always lead to improved results. Some research studies indicate that empowerment is more effective at influencing creativity and collaboration than improving routine task performance. This same literature review found that “leaders who empowered employees were more effective at influencing employee performance in Eastern, compared to Western, cultures, and they had a more positive impact on employees who had less experience working in their organizations.”

The finding that empowerment was more effective in Eastern cultures was attributed to the observation that in the countries studied, “those in more powerful positions are expected to assist and support those in lower positions, while subordinates are expected to be loyal and obey their leader. This social norm should enhance the acceptance of leadership empowerment among employees and even amplify its effects.” This could be true, although the studies looked at only manufacturing jobs in Eastern and Western cultures, not at knowledge work.

It should also be acknowledged that not all employees respond the same to an environment of empowerment. Those who feel competent when taking on the new tasks they are asked to perform are more likely to realize the benefits of empowerment. This includes employees with higher self-esteem, self-efficacy (the belief that they can succeed with a task), and internal locus of control (people who feel that they have control over their lives rather than external factors or other people controlling their lives).