How to Foster a Culture of Empowerment at Work

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Leadership Challenge" by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is it important to empower your employees? What are some ways to empower your team in a meaningful way?

Employees who feel strong and empowered under your leadership will perform well. Conversely, employees who feel powerless and incompetent will underperform, feel disengaged, and might even be looking for opportunities to leave an organization.

To foster a culture of empowerment, follow these principles.

The Benefits of Empowerment

Employees who feel empowered feel that: 

  • They’re in control of their jobs and their futures. 
  • They have discretion as to how to handle situations. 
  • They’re involved in key planning decisions.
  • Important information is shared with them.
  • Their supervisors encourage them, coach them, and invest resources in them. 

When employees feel powerless, they feel that:

  • No one listens to their ideas or opinions.
  • They have no input into important decisions.
  • Their managers argue or correct them in front of others. 
  • Their managers don’t support them with resources, time, information, training, or encouragement.
  • They’re held accountable for others’ mistakes but have no authority to hold those others accountable. 

To foster a culture of empowerment, make every team member feel they’re expected to contribute to projects in a meaningful way by giving ideas and helping with strategy. This will help them see themselves as integral and valued parts of the team and will give them the confidence to take initiative. 

In addition:

  • Allow for choices.
  • Increase accountability.

Allow for Choices

People feel in control of their own lives when they have the power to make choices about how to solve problems. In contrast, they feel trapped when they feel their choices are made for them. 

This has a significant effect on how people feel about working for an organization: Studies show that when people feel their leaders frequently give them freedom to decide how to do their own work, 80% report feeling proud to work for that organization. However, at even slightly lower levels of autonomy, that feeling of pride goes away—of those reporting their leaders “fairly often” allowed them freedom to make decisions, only 16% reported pride in the organization.

While there is some risk in allowing people to make important decisions, the benefits typically outweigh the potential drawbacks, because your team will end up consisting of stronger individuals. 

  • When people are able to make choices, they feel more personally responsible for a project and are less likely to blame their supervisors or teammates if things go wrong. 
  • Further, they’re more likely to take initiative to fix a problem if things do go wrong, not only because they’ll feel empowered to, but also because they’ll feel the project reflects on them more directly, and will therefore want it to succeed. 

One example of a company that empowered employees was the Bay Club Santa Clara, a gym in California. After a reorganization, it allowed its trainers to set their own monthly goals for hours worked, which allowed them to take responsibility for recruiting clients and structuring their own work. As a result, trainers felt they were each running their own businesses within the larger organization, increasing their sense of control. As a result, they put more effort into their positions: Billable hours increased and the trainers reported feeling more committed to the organization.

Increase Accountability

To increase your team members’ sense of accountability—their feeling of responsibility and their desire to proactively take care of their tasks—foster a sense of ownership. This doesn’t mean physical or legal ownership, but rather, psychological ownership, whereby a person feels invested in a project so that they want to go beyond their defined roles to ensure the project’s success. 

Increased accountability has benefits for both you and your team: 

  • When you lead people who are taking responsibility for their roles, you’re free to focus on other aspects of leadership, such as expanding your influence or securing resources to help your team. 
  • When people feel that their teammates are competently taking care of their areas of expertise and are accountable for them, they don’t feel the need to infringe on anyone else’s role; they feel secure in the progress of the project and trusting of their team. 

You can increase your team members’ accountability and sense of ownership by giving them something concrete to control. For example:  

  • Ensure that everyone has a customer—someone they answer to, no matter what the task.
  • Increase signature authority.
  • Remove unnecessary approval steps, so that people don’t have to check with superiors unless it’s needed.
  • Provide vertical and horizontal access to information and resources both inside and outside the organization—make sure that when you assign responsibility for a task, that person has the resources necessary to complete it. 
How to Foster a Culture of Empowerment at Work

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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