Nigel McPolin
Founder, etimes2 ltd

Are we looking at employee engagement the wrong way?  In their efforts to help employees become more engaged with their workplace, many senior teams tend to run large scale engagement building activities.  By putting these type of generic events first, they are missing the main ingredient of engaged employees – empowerment.  So, if empowerment is crucial for engaged employees, then leadership development is the first place to start.


Why is leadership development so important in employee empowerment?

At etimes2, we have always advocated building engagement from the bottom-up in an organisation – i.e. start with the individual employee.  Why?  Because of two main reasons:


  1. Engagement is an outcome of the employee’s experiences with the organisation to date.
  2. Engagement building activities are good things to do. However, if your employees already feel disempowered and disengaged, then they will not make a difference as they are too generic and do nothing to target individual experiences.  Is this a reason why the engagement statistics stay the same?


The line manager is the most important factor in the individual employee’s experience.  It is the line manager who can create the conditions under which an employee feels empowered, or disempowered.  This is why leadership development is so important.


Empowering leaders: the impact on employees

It takes a strong and confident line manager to empower the people in their team.  They will realise the strengths of a team driven by empowered employees.  A team of innovators and decision makers who feel empowered and valued by their working environment and will go the extra mile to ensure success.  These line managers lead by sharing control and trust their team members’ ability to make decisions about the work they do every day.


Such empowering leadership brings rich rewards to an organisation.


Unfortunately, there are too many line managers who do not match this description.  They choose to manage by retaining control over everything – tasks and people.  Innovation, creativity and decision making is not considered to be within the remit of the team member.  In this environment, the employee experience is one of disempowerment first followed by disengagement.


So, leadership development is very much part of the equation when building engagement from the bottom-up.  If an employee is already disengaged, then s/he will need to witness a change in the working environment before the risk to re-engage is worth it.  S/he will most likely perceive and judge this change through the behaviour of the line manager.


Empowered Workplaces???

Too many people are talking about “empowered workplaces”.  In my mind, these do not exist.  Again, such terminology is too generic.  We hear that open communication happens in an ‘empowered workplace’ and people are willing to take responsibility and risks.  They demonstrate a ‘can do’ attitude.


line-managerFocusing on things like employees being willing to take responsibility and decisions, showing a can-do attitude, and a free flow of ideas, innovation and creativity is potentially creating a disempowering environment.  There is potential here for blame to be attributed if employees don’t take responsibility or if the expected torrent of ideas is just a trickle from the usual suspects.  All you need to do to understand my point here is to reflect on the likely behaviour of the weaker line managers I discussed above.


We should instead focus on creating empowering workplaces and empowering leaders. The onus is on the organisation and its managers to create the right conditions for these behaviours to happen.  And to tweak the conditions until they do.  The terminology used should not mask this responsibility or give weaker leaders a get out clause.


Development Tips for Empowering Leaders

This leads nicely to the first tip for creating empowering leaders:

Tip 1: Get the terminology right

Your leadership development programme needs to focus its terminology on developing empowering leadership.  The onus for creating an empowering environment where open and trusting communication happens, and where it is safe to innovate, must lie first and foremost with the line manager.  The employee needs to see a behaviour change at this level first so they can consider a change in their own mindset.


Tip 2: Deprioritise the generics

Line managers and organisations must understand that employees are individuals who, in order to feel empowered and engaged, need to hear the actions of the organisation speaking to them as individuals.  The large scale employee engagement events will never achieve this on their own.


The emphasis has to be on empowering the individual employee to become more involved in decision making, business conversations and innovation.  Give the employee a stake in their workplace to create the environment for engagement to take root.


This happens through the direct line manager for most employees.  All managers should be encouraged to recognise the impact of their role on employees and be more open to the behaviours that will positively empower employees.


Tip 3: Respect the current situation

If employees are currently disempowered and/or disengaged, then organisations need to tread with care.  Too frequently I hear business owners and senior managers lament the lack of immediate impact from their engagement initiatives.  This lamenting and expectations of immediate payback are hugely counterproductive.


Instead, try to figure out just how disengaged and disempowered your employees feel.  Then try to figure out the reason why.  This is not going to be a single answer question as some teams/line managers will be more/less empowering than others.  The individual experience is going to be different for each person based on many variables including line manager relationship, ambitions, development etc.


To build an empowering workplace, line managers need to respect these differences.


How does your organisation develop empowering leadership?
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