From Delegation to Employee Empowerment

several people demonstrating employee engagement

In my transition from practicing psychology to full-time consulting, I was asked to serve as a director of Human Resources for a 2000-person electronics firm in the Pacific Northwest. My initial reaction was “No. I have no training in HR and am not qualified.” However, after some back and forth with the company president, I realized I didn’t need to be an expert in the technical aspects of HR. My job was to provide leadership to a group of capable employees. Once I reframed my role, I learned some valuable lessons in employee empowerment.

One of those lessons had to do with delegation. Because I was inexperienced, I had to depend on my staff and so delegated a lot of tasks to them. At one time I asked the main phone and desk receptionist (back in the olden days) to look into a new phone service. We were paying too much and not getting enough benefits.

I came back to her about a week later and she hadn’t done anything. Initially, my reaction was that I’d delegated the task to the wrong person. But as I thought about it, I recognized that I had not done my part. I’d given her a big responsibility but had not empowered her for success.

A Different Approach

So, we took a step back to clarify what she’d do. I did this by asking her questions and then filling in gaps with my thoughts. We first talked about outcomes. What is it we’re trying to accomplish and why? What do we want a new system to do for us? We then identified the kinds of communication companies she could talk to and we thought through a script, the information she needed and kinds of questions she’d ask to get that information. We talked about how she’d capture this information and by when she’d report back to me and the rest of the HR team.

And then I left her alone to complete the task. She came back to a team meeting a couple of weeks later to report on what she’d learned. We listened as a team, gave our input, and then I took her recommendation to the senior management team.

The experience was a win for Jeannie who was excited for what she’s accomplished. She came away a more capable and committed employee. She was not only smarter about her job but her heart was more engaged in her work.

And the experience was a good learning for me as well as Jeannie. I realized I’d delegated to her without empowering her. She was capable of taking on this assignment but not without more clarification and structure.

Employee Empowerment Process

Here is a process for going about this. This can be done for a special initiative or even some ongoing responsibility that you, as leader, want a member of your staff to take on.

Step One: Clarify responsibilities. The first thing that people need is a definition of the responsibilities they will assume. Make a bullet point list that includes all of the tasks and responsibilities you want someone to take on.

Step Two: Identify boundary conditions.  These are the parameters within which people will fulfill their responsibilities. This includes the following:

  • Expectations/results: What are the expectations or results expected by an individual who takes on this responsibility? These can be qualitative or quantitative.
  • Non-negotiables: What is out of bounds? Non-negotiables define givens or limits that cannot be crossed in fulfilling a responsibility. For example, if a person schedules vacations, they have to comply with existing company personnel policies.
  • Budget: How much money is needed and allocated for this project or set of responsibilities? Make this clear from the start.
  • Authority: How much authority should a person have? Authority is the level of autonomy that one has in carrying out a task. There are four levels of authority and how much authority one is granted depends on their experience, motivation, and capability.

Level 1: Act when directed

Level 2: Act after approval

Level 3: Act and report

Level 4: Act autonomously

  • Time guidelines: What are the time constraints that guide the task? This generally consists of milestone events or completion of certain projects. It can also include the length of time a person assumes a particular role.

Step Three: Identify knowledge and information requirements. What knowledge and/or information must someone have access to in order to succeed?  In many organizations, managers take for granted the knowledge or information they may have that others do not. It is essential to identify these needs in order to fully empower someone.

Step Four: Identify required skills. What skills do people need to successfully take on new responsibilities? For example, they may need to learn new software, or how to read a budget or even enter data into a computer.

Step Five: Provide resources: What financial, technical or organizational resources are available for people to fulfill their responsibilities? These can include tools and equipment as well as reports, technical experts, etc.

Step Six: Offer ongoing support.  What kind of support does an individual require while learning a new responsibility? Support is being available to talk as necessary. It is also letting them know that you trust their ability to handle a task; that it is okay for them to make mistakes.

The Value of Employee Empowerment

There is tremendous value that comes from employee empowerment. Not only can you get more done as a leader but you are developing your most important resource, your people. You give people the opportunity to grow and contribute to your team or organization in more meaningful ways. This helps them feel more ownership and make a greater mental and emotional investment in the organization. Furthermore, research shows that greater employee empowerment leads to greater organizational success.

  • 37% less absenteeism
  • Up to 65% lower turnover
  • 41% fewer quality problems/complaints
  • 10% higher customer ratings
  • 21% higher productivity
  • 22% higher profitability

People Want to Succeed

A bias of mine is that most employees want to succeed. They want to contribute and make a difference. And it’s our job as leaders to make this possible. Leadership is not about what we do on our own but how we create a culture in which everyone is able to give their best. One way we do this is by implementing a process of employee empowerment.

I also want to suggest that these principles apply not only in businesses but all sorts of community, church, civic organizations and families. Although the process may not be as well-defined and formal, even parents can teach kids to take on more responsibility and empower them for success by thinking through the elements of the empowerment model.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

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