Empowerment: A Tricky Business
Empowerment — building the leadership bench strength of an organization requires a steady supply of leadership talent. Looking within the organization, managers and supervisors should consider opportunities to prepare those around them for ever more challenging leadership roles. That said, taking high potential candidates and moving them forward to leadership readiness is tricky. How and when do you know an employee is ready?
Because empowerment is a tricky business, consider the following progression to help you know when an employee might be ready for increased responsibility. The assumption here is that the supervisor is continuously testing and evaluating each employee to determine what level of empowerment he or she is capable of assuming successfully on behalf of the organization.
Six Levels of Empowerment
You (the employee) research an assigned activity; you report what you have learned or discovered; but I (the supervisor) will decide what action is to be taken.
This is the most basic level of empowerment. It is used to determine how an individual thinks, prepares, works and communicates. It is most commonly used in evaluating the actual skills of new employees or newly transferred employees. If specific flaws or shortcomings are identified, specific plans for further training and development might be undertaken. If the individual meets and exceeds expectations in this area, then the next level of empowerment should be considered. Because of the supervisor’s stated intent to make the final decision, there is no relevant risk assumed by the employee at this stage.
You research an assigned activity; you report the alternative actions/options that are available; you suggest one for implementation; but I will decide what action is to be taken.
Here you are evaluating the mental dexterity and awareness of various decision making options and how relevant or irrelevant they might be for the organization’s specific purposes and intents. As before, there continues to be no relevant risk to the employee since the supervisor has reserved the right to make the decision. If the employee is determined to be ready, the next step in the process may be assigned.
You research an assigned activity; you report what you intend to do; but don’t act without my approval.
Notice there is a marked increase in the expectation of performance on the part of the employee. This is the first level at which the employee assumes some specific level of risk. However, the supervisor has continued to maintain some level of “institutional control” by making sure s/he is comfortable with the communicated actions. In each of these first three levels of empowerment, continuing one-on-one, face-to-face communication and the conversations that need to take place are absolutely critical. If the employee is determined to be ready, the next step in the process may be assigned.
You research an assigned activity; you report what you intend to do; go ahead and do it unless I say “no.”
By this point in the process, the trust level has clearly increased between both parties. The subordinate has earned the right to move to this level of empowerment based on an understanding of the goals and objectives of the organization and his or her proven performance and identified ability to meet those goals and objectives. Communication is still important at this level, but the reins of decision making responsibility are now being passed from the supervisor to the subordinate.
You research an assigned activity; you take the action you deem appropriate; report what you did.
Subordinates are working independently of their supervisor, with the supervisor’s full knowledge and confidence based on the subordinate’s past proven ability and successes. The unencumbered performance of the subordinate, in turn, frees the supervisor to attend to other pressing issues.
You research an assigned activity; you take the action you deem appropriate; no further communication is required.
This is the highest level of empowerment. It is rarely earned and rarely granted–and then only to the best, most tested and most trusted subordinates. With this level, both supervisor and subordinate share the risk of the empowered actions taken.
A few important observations to remember:
This is not an overnight process. It requires vigilant communication, observation, evaluation and training. As previously discussed, empowerment is preceded and supported by significant and on-going coaching and counseling activities. This is not a “one-size-fits-all” process. It requires customized activities for individual employees who may or may not accept empowerment in the same way or at the same rate as another employee. Appropriate empowerment levels are also dependent on individual jobs. In other words, a single employee may be at a Level 5 empowerment level for one task and the same employee at a Level 2 empowerment level for a different task.
Creating a continuous flow of leadership talent from within an organization can happen and happen effectively when those in leadership positions are willing to share power with those individuals who demonstrate they are worthy of the challenge.
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