How Empowerment in the Workplace Motivates Workers

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Delivering Happiness" by Tony Hsieh. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are your workers having trouble getting motivated? How can you encourage empowerment in the workplace?

Former CEO of Zappos Tony Hsieh strongly feels that supporting employees is essential in creating a thriving business. Employees who feel trusted and empowered in the workplace are more motivated to be better at their job.

Read on to learn more about ways to increase workplace empowerment by providing employees with the resources and opportunity to improve their work.

Making Your Employees Feel Supported

Employees that feel supported by their employers are happier and more motivated to work hard. 

(Shortform note: Many managers neglect employee support in favor of supporting customers because they see employees merely as expendable assets to gain higher profits, while customers actually provide those profits. While supporting customers is important, it’s arguably more important to focus on supporting employees. Studies show that customer satisfaction significantly increases when employees are satisfied with their support at work. Thus, if you focus on supporting your employees, you’ll support your customers—and your bottom line—too.)

Hsieh explains that empowerment in the workplace means recognizing what’s best for your employees’ happiness and productivity and providing for that need, even if it means losing money in the short term. For example, your employees might need affordable childcare so they can focus on work instead of worrying about their children. To meet this need, you might institute a program to help parents pay for childcare or even provide childcare in-house. These solutions cause a short-term loss in service of long-term growth fueled by employee happiness and productivity.

(Shortform note: Recognizing and providing for your employees’ needs, rather than the needs of the business, requires employee-level empathy. This means respecting that your employees have lives and goals outside of their jobs, rather than pushing their personal lives and needs aside in favor of profits. This respect could take the form of maternity leave, flexible working hours, or providing training for promotions.)

How Zappos Uses Empowerment in the Workplace

One of the things employees need to be happy and productive—and that Zappos provides—is trust and empowerment to make decisions, Hsieh argues. The employees on the “front lines” of a department are usually the best equipped to understand and handle that department’s problems. Supporting these employees and their suggestions shows that you respect them and empowers them to solve problems faster.

Supporting Your Employees Through Empowerment

Paul L. Marciano agrees with Hsieh’s emphasis on trust and empowerment in the workplace in Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work. He outlines three main methods of empowering employees:

1. Share information. Give your employees information about the company’s goals and processes so they can work to fulfill those goals. If you hoard information on a need-to-know basis, employees will feel untrusted and resentful. They’ll try to learn the withheld information through gossip, leading to the spread of confusion and false information.

2. Provide resources. Give your employees the resources they need to complete their tasks. This includes training as well as physical resources. These resources should remove obstacles that may impede employee progress. For example, training removes a lack of knowledge, and automated systems remove repetitive, time-consuming jobs.

3. Give responsibility. Give your employees the chance to use the information and resources you’ve provided. Let your employees try new things and learn from their mistakes. If you’re anxious about delegating responsibility and risking costly mistakes if your employees can’t cope, decide what would constitute an acceptable loss and delegate responsibility within that limit. For example, you might decide that an employee losing $100 by investing in a failed project is an acceptable loss. In that situation, limit your employees’ responsibility so they can’t invest more than $100 without consulting a manager.

Empower Employees Through Their Education

As discussed, Zappos makes it a top priority to keep its employees happy, and does so through empowerment. In the workplace, employees are happier and more willing to work when they’re learning and improving themselves, so helping employees do so is an important part of fulfilling this goal. 

(Shortform note: How does learning make you happy? Raph Koster explains in A Theory of Fun For Game Design that “fun” is a burst of dopamine you receive when learning something new or mastering a skill. Dopamine generates pleasure and motivation, so learning something new, as Zappos encourages, directly contributes to happiness.)

In addition, companies are only as good as their employees, Hsieh explains. Your company can’t grow and improve unless your employees do as well because they’re the ones operating the business. Thus, to keep innovating and maintain your company’s success, support your employees’ innovation and success.

Zappos encourages empowerment in the workplace through its “educational pipeline” system of training. Hsieh says Zappos’s pipeline operates on a merit badge system: People who fulfill certain training requirements earn promotions and pay raises. The first, basic elements of training are mandatory, but after those elements are completed, people can select which merit badges they want to earn and which skills to specialize in.

How Empowerment in the Workplace Motivates Workers

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Here's what you'll find in our full Delivering Happiness summary :

  • Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's guide to workplace happiness
  • The three principles that turned Zappos into a billion-dollar company in a decade
  • An exploration of the psychology behind happiness and why it leads to success

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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