Employee engagement is the holy grail of today’s workplace. Everybody wants to get it right, but most struggle with where to start.
More than 70 percent of executives realize employee engagement is key to organizational success, resulting in 22 percent higher productivity and more than twice as much annual net income. Companies spend more than $750 million a year in attempts to boost employee engagement. Yet just one in three American workers are engaged in their jobs, and their apathy is costing $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity each year.
What are they missing? Here’s a hint: Technology alone is not enough—engagement has to be built into the fabric of the workplace.
The answer, it turns out, is empowerment. Researchers have found that employees are 26 percent more satisfied with their work when they hold a position of power. Seven in 10 employees rank empowerment as an important element of their engagement. In one study, highly empowered employees showed engagement levels in the 79th percentile, whereas disempowered workers rated in the 24th percentile for engagement.
“In order for people to feel vested in what they do, they need to be in control,” says Michael Brenner, CEO of Marketing Insider Group.
Business leaders often conflate engagement with empowerment, but they’re not the same thing. Employees can be engaged without being empowered. However, these employees face a higher likelihood of frustration, burnout, disengagement, low productivity, and attrition.
What enterprises want is the kind of employee engagement that stems from feeling empowered at work. These employees are 67 percent more willing to put in extra effort on the job. They’re also more willing to innovate and take the creative risks that help drive business growth and revenue gains.
So how can business leaders help fuel empowerment within their companies?
Grant employees autonomy over their work
When employees are allowed to make at least some decisions on their own—like when, where, or how they tackle projects—it gives them a sense of ownership over their work. People need to “perceive that they have choices, that what they are doing is of their own volition, and that they are the source of their own actions,” says professional development director Joan Cheverie.
Yet in many workplaces, leaders continue to micromanage employees because they’re afraid to relinquish control. Even companies that claim to empower employees often grant autonomy in name only; employees must diverge from prescribed processes at their own risk. This type of environment can crush creativity, says workplace creativity expert Teresa Amabile.
Empowering leaders set strategic goals and benchmarks and let employees decide how to go about meeting them. This helps foster an environment where employees feel safe unleashing their creativity and pursuing their own ideas.
Give employees the freedom to do their best
Different personality types have different work styles. While most people exhibit a combination of traits, most workplaces have representatives of these two personality types: introvert and extrovert. Introverts, which comprise anywhere from 16 to 50 percent of the population, usually thrive in quiet, solitary environments. Extroverts, which represent 50 to 74 percent of people, often prefer social environments with plenty of stimulation.
Since the two types have different needs, helping them collaborate effectively with each other can be a struggle. Businesses often cater to the needs of one at the expense of the other—or worse, demand a uniform work style from everyone that doesn’t work for anyone. An empowering workplace allows space for the needs of all types of workers while permitting each individual to choose what works best for them.
“Giving introverted employees the autonomy to collaborate virtually from home and extroverted workers the opportunity to engage with co-workers in a stimulating atmosphere such as a coffee shop down the street or an employee lounge area, can bring out the best in both personality types,” Brenner says.
Trust employees with the authority to make decisions
While most managers understand the need to delegate, in practice most simply make decisions themselves and then direct employees to carry them out. But empowering employees means trusting them to make at least some of those decisions on their own.
“Real delegation is assigning responsibility for outcomes along with the authority to do what is needed to produce the desired results,” says business leader Sam Lloyd.
Employees are most committed to their work when they trust their leaders to have their back, and delegating authority helps build that trust. It also gives workers the space to develop their own skills and abilities on the job—another key factor in employee engagement.
Provide employees with tools that support success
While no tool or program is a perfect solution, putting the right technology into the hands of employees can go a long way towards improving employee empowerment. When workers have the ability to work from where they want, complete tasks faster, and feel confident making decisions, they feel that they are being given every opportunity to succeed.
But teaching “decision making” is no easy task. Employees must learn how to find the right data for a decision, interpret that data, and make the best decision based on that data. And, nothing is more empowering for an employee than having relevant, personalized information about a decision at their fingertips, instead of being forced to search for information and try to determine what data matters.
A tool or program can be helpful, but empowering employees goes beyond just a technical solution. It also requires a shift in the way businesses function and how business leaders think. The right tools combined with an organizational commitment to empowerment will improve employee productivity and enhance business performance. Managers need to stop micromanaging and start leading—and giving them autonomy, freedom, authority, and tools are a great place to start. In the words of leadership consultant Warren Bennis:
“The manager maintains, the leader develops. The manager relies on systems, the leader relies on people. The manager counts on control, the leader counts on trust.”