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Empowerment and Employee Happiness

Posted by admin on August 9, 2013

Our last two blog posts looked at how managers and supervisors can impact employee happiness, including how they can use Maslow’s Hierarchy to analyze what motivates employees.   One person posted a response that there should be an additional level on the Hierarchy for empowerment.  It was a provocative idea, but after giving it a lot of thought, we believe that empowerment actually fits on the “Self-Esteem” level of the Hierarchy, just below “Self-Actualization”, the highest level of the Hierarchy.  We guess there is a reason Maslow’s Hierarchy has stood the test of time!

The Self-Esteem level has to do with confidence, achievement, respect of others, being seen as unique, etc.  Here’s why we think empowerment fits on this level. 

In order for people to empower you, they must respect your capability to use sound judgment in carrying out the responsibilities that come with power.  After all, by empowering you, they are transferring some of their authority to you to act on their behalf.  Very few people are willing to do this if they don’t have faith that you will use that power correctly.

The person being empowered must feel confident he or she can meet the expectations that come with empowerment.  It is natural for the person being empowered to feel a little nervous or intimidated by new authority, so the people giving the authority need to provide reassurance that the person will succeed.   A colleague told us about some research a CEO friend of his had done recently.  The CEO was presenting at a women’s conference, and interviewed men and women about their careers.  He found that women were less likely to pursue a position with more authority until they were sure they could master it.  Men were more likely to pursue the position and figure out what to do when they took the position.   So managers should pay special attention to encouraging women being empowered with new authority.

Of course, true empowerment assumes that the person being empowered has the skills needed or can develop those skills very quickly.  Nothing spells disaster more quickly than a person who is given authority but doesn’t know how or when to use it properly.  Likewise, the person has to be given true empowerment.  If he or she has to check everything with the boss, people will very quickly circumvent the “empowered” employee to go directly to the boss.  So the manager or supervisor has to give real authority and has to push people back to the empowered employee to really communicate that power has been transferred. 

We have been around long enough to see empowerment used as a flavor-of-the-month approach in some companies to convince employees that they are partners in the business.  These usually fail pretty quickly and the company moves onto the next initiative, wondering why nothing ever sticks. 

Why should you care about truly empowering employees as a tool to making them happy?  A recent survey by Monster.com found that 47% of manufacturing workers are dissatisfied with their job and likely to be hunting for a new employer.  About 34% of the survey participants were confident they could secure new employment.  In other words about 1 in 2 employees in your plant may be looking for a new job and about 1 in 3 are confident they can find one.  Think about the havoc even half these numbers would mean in terms of replacing these workers. 

Companies that take a thoughtful approach to empowerment that includes who will have what authority, and what skills and processes are needed to make it successful can reap tremendous rewards.  One of our clients has a set of 10 principles that guide its operations.  Before an initiative is undertaken employees are asked to describe how the initiative supports the principles.  And the principles and the skills needed to carry them out are built into employees’ job expectations so employees know how they are empowered to make the principles actionable.  This direct tie from principles to behavior moves the principles from theoretical to how the company operates.