How to empower your employees?

The journey to empowerment in 5 steps.

It’s like teaching someone to ride a bike

Empowering employees is one of those obvious goals that every leader and company wants to achieve. By empowering your employees you can achieve better results, quicker and more successfully. You want employees to take initiative, take ownership and complete the work without having to be told how to do it.

However as you might have noticed people are not ready to take on the extra responsibility overnight. It will take time and patience to support each employee to empower them successfully. When you give ownership to someone who is not used to it expect that they will need a bit of support before they can do it independently.

It’s like learning how to ride a bike. There are not many people in this world that can get on a bike and immediately ride it without help. Below are five steps to empower employees.

1. Select the right person

Take your time to select the right person. What are the must-have qualities, knowledge and experience that you look for? And most importantly, make sure that the person you select is eager and willing to take on extra responsibility.

Don’t look for the impossible. If someone has a lot of potential then don’t exclude them just because they miss some knowledge or experience. It’s a missed opportunity if you pass over a loyal and hardworking team member that is ready to do more for the company. Especially if they have potential, and are willing to work hard for it. If possible help them develop and grow.

Select the right cyclist

When you teach someone how to ride a bike, they need to be willing and capable. A child that doesn’t want to cycle will give you a lot of headache and frustration. Even after you put a lot of time and effort in teaching them, it is very unlikely that they succeed. The same way it will not work if you put a one year old on a bike without side wheels even when the child is very eager to learn they are just not ready for it.

2. Clear communication

Make sure that that they clearly understand what is expected from them. How can someone excel if they don’t have a clear understanding what the role is and where the boundaries are? Where necessary take the time to define the role and responsibilities so there are no misunderstandings.

They need to understand that they are evaluated based on meeting the set expectations and that they are accountable for the successes and failures of themselves and anyone within their team.

3. Telling

Expect that the person you empower initially needs support, reassurance, and/or training to do a good job.

Most people need at the beginning quite a bit of support. It is ok if you start by giving clear instructions how to do their job. It’s not the goal to micro-manage but in this journey it can serve a purpose. Especially when you are teaching/mentoring an inexperienced person how to lead. Take them under your wing for this first period, show them the ropes and lead by example.

Telling your child how to cycle

It’s the same when you teach your child how to cycle. Before you let them cycle, you tell them where to put their hands, how to operate the pedals, and that they need to look where they’re going. You might even show your child how to do it before you put her on the bike.

4. Motivate and validate

You want to start as soon as possible to motivate and reassure employees to come up with solutions themselves, e.g. ask them how they would deal with an issue? In order to really shine they sometimes need to unlearn behavior they associate with being successful like “I shouldn’t question my seniors” and “I shouldn’t make mistakes”. Work on building their confidence so they truly believe in their own power and talent. In this phase you are working side by side, stimulating the employee to do it, validating, reassuring or correcting whatever is appropriate.

Give them enough space to try new things out but without putting the company in danger. They will have to find their own way and learn what the best approach is for them.

Recognize effort and reward successes. Give praise and compliments when they succeed.

Help your child to cycle side by side

Your child is ready to take the first ride on their bike. You prevent them from falling by placing a hand on their neck while they cycle, you let them do it but you’re there right next to them to catch them when they fall and to encourage to keep trying. That failure is the only way to learn. You actually prefer them to fail early – as opposed to them failing while cycling 50km an hour down a hill.

5. Actively Monitor

It is time: they are ready to do the job on their own. They know what is expected of them, how to do their job, and are stimulated to make well thought out decisions. Now they have to do it without you. Don’t get tempted to keep checking every step of the way. Part of empowerment is that you trust them to do the job well. Learning to truly trust your employees is one of the hardest parts of delegating responsibility.

In this phase you actively monitor the performance. They are in charge, lead and drive things but by monitoring the results actively you can correct very quickly in case needed.

Expect that they will make mistakes along the way. Make sure that they are confronted with their mistakes in a constructive way.

Your child is cycling

Your child is now cycling on their own for the first time in their life. You do want to stay close by just in case they ask for help or to pick them up when they have fallen down. Reassure that the way to get better is to fall, get back on the bike and learn from your mistakes.

End result: Empowerment

When they are successful and have demonstrated good performance over and over you have successfully empowered the individual. By now they should have full authority and autonomy to do their job. You will check periodically that they keep performing.

In case performance deteriorates it is possible that you go back to step 5, or even step 4. None of this is hard science, and people may do very well in certain areas, but still need more support in others.

Your child is cycling outside alone

You have done it! Your child doesn’t need your supervision anymore. They have shown they can do the job. It is time to let go and let them cycle on their own outside. That doesn’t mean that they will never fall but that is part of the game.

Final Thoughts

In my professional life I often hear complaints from leaders that they try to empower people but are not happy with the result, e.g. the person they empower is afraid to make decisions on their own, is not performing enough or is simply not taking enough ownership.

Before drawing the conclusion that the person is not right for the job also think about your role in this journey. Did you really spend enough time to explain, prepare and support? Where you an effective mentor? Did you dare to give full authority, autonomy and trust?

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