If you look closely, you will be able to notice a tectonic shift in the way people are being led in the corporate space. Leadership styles have evolved from autocratic and transactional to democratic and inspirational. Leaders have increasingly found results in influencing through inspiring instead of wielding the weight of their position on the workforce.
The changing nature of the workforce has made some of this shift inevitable. Gig workers, remote employees and most of all, the generational shift in the workforce have contributed towards this shift. Technology too, has been at the forefront of this leadership change.
Through this leadership shift, was born the idea of employee empowerment. What does it mean to empower? Empowering employees means to give them the tools and trust they need to succeed, without making them merely an executor of ideas. It encourages ownership, a sense of creativity and belonging towards their tasks, and helps them connect deeply with the values of the organization.
One side of empowerment is the attitude shift in leaders. Yet another side that is often taken for granted is the intrinsic drive of the doer. Inherent motivation is where empowerment essentially begins. Empowerment is more effective if it is taken rather than given.
Harry Harlow, a psychologist, conducted a two week experiment on eight rhesus monkeys. The monkeys were given a puzzle to solve. This task was to be done without any external urging and prompts. The monkeys soon started to play with the puzzle with focus, determination, enjoyment andby the end of the 14th day, figured out how to solve it within sixty seconds. What was odd about this is that these monkeys were not given any encouragement, penalty or rewards to do so. Solving the puzzle was not a primal need that drives action in humans or animals. What Harlow concluded from the experiment was that to the monkeys, performance of the task itself was a gratifying experience. They were driven by an intrinsic motivation to solve the puzzle.
Motivation is such a powerful tool that it can make the mere action of performing a task a reward for those who are self-driven and entrepreneurial by nature. That’s when empowerment leads to sustained results and behavioural changes. A lack of intrinsic drive, therefore, is the biggest dampener to any efforts to make employees more autonomous.
Igniting and nurturing motivation is one of the most important tasks of a leader in the modern world. The key of doing that successfully is for leaders to find the alignment between the employee’s aspirations and organizational goals. Driving motivation in employees who do not exhibit it explicitly is a challenging task that requires a multi-layered approach that needs to be cultivated over time. Some of the things that help to increase motivation in the workforce are setting clear expectations, complimenting efforts, providing continuous feedback and giving them a vantage of the broader organizational goals. It begins with the experience of the workplace and is reiterated with a strong emphasis on open communication and a culture of trust.
One of the most welcome effects of empowerment is accountability. If leaders take the step towards becoming more sensitive of employee needs and provide them with autonomy, then employees have to become more accountable for the results they deliver.Empowerment and accountability have a mutual relationship. The feeling of being empowered in an employee leads to greater confidence, imagination and engagement. That in turn triggers them to take ownership of their work and become more accountable too.
According to the Dale Carnegie whitepaper on ‘Leading a Multi-generational Workforce’, Millennials prefer to work in an environment that is trusting, challenging and positive. They respond very well to autonomy, in fact, are shown to thrive in the tasks that they are empowered to do by themselves. They show greater trust in bosses who take their opinion seriously despite their age and position. With Millennials being the largest segment in the workforce, it is crucial for businesses to provide an environment that encourages self-drive and nurtures motivation.
There is a thin line between merely complying with a task and doing it with true independence. This line often gets blurred by over cautious leaders when they prefer to cook the entire recipe and leave just the seasoning to the employees. Similarly, when leaders’ words on empowering employees do not align with their actions and employees’ expectations, organizations miss out on the benefits of empowered workers.
A Dale Carnegie survey revealed that feeling valued, confident, connected and empowered are also key emotions for engagement. Employees are empowered by feeling part of something bigger than themselves, by being listened to and by being given autonomy and flexibility to achieve results within their defined role.
Even though one can say that you can only be truly empowered if you are inherently motivated, it cannot be denied that often motivation is also fuelled by empowerment. Organizations need to ensure that their leaders and managers have the necessary skills and training to drive empowerment and autonomy in their true essence in the team.