Four Major Hindrances to Empowerment

The concept of empowerment demands the full participation and interaction of all levels of an organization. Problems arise when there is a lack of commitment by leaders to actually implement empowerment strategies throughout the organization. They mouth the words of empowerment but fail to back them up with real actions to remove barriers for all employees.

Leaders have a powerful position to play in the transition and development of a company’s ability to successfully implement employee empowerment throughout the entire organization. Leaders understand that the implementation process of empowerment is concerned with more than just the mechanical aspects accompanying the transitions and change.

It is important to understand that many barriers to real empowerment exist because of the pitfalls many organizations stumble into. Most of them materialize because of a failure to focus on how to improve the more indirect value characteristics of the organization. These characteristics involve the issues of trust, responsibility, harmony, participation and cooperative group efforts. Often the responsibility lies with the leader who fears a change in the status quo and an erosion of his or her power and authority.

One of the key phrases that defines empowerment is “participative management.” Research has demonstrated a positive link between employee participation and work satisfaction and between motivation and performance. These links are hindered from occurring when leaders fall short in recognizing the potential of their employees and fail to see how much power these individuals potentially carry to solve major problems and issues. The four major pitfalls leaders encounter as they attempt to transition into empowering their employees become manifested when they begin to mix the messages of empowerment or fail to link actions to ideas. These include the following beliefs:

“Empowerment is just a term used to produce the same actions to get similar results.”

Decisions are being continually made at the top in spite of the organization saying it is empowering its employees. This mixed message supported by accompanying actions does much to undermine an employee’s willingness to participate, improve performance, and accept additional responsibility.

A traditional labor division still exists even though participation is actively sought. This is generally caused by leaders failing to delegate meaningful assignments, tasks and projects able to have a real impact on building confidence and worker satisfaction.

Many leaders believe that empowerment can still be accomplished through delegating, but that there must be some form of direct or indirect control when it comes to overseeing what is being delegated.

“We are all in this together… up to a point.”

Many leaders fail to realize one important fact: if employees directly affected by proposed changes are not involved in the decision to change, they will fight its progress.

Employees should not be told what to do, but be given the opportunity to learn where, when and what to do in specific situations. Many leaders have their own fears to overcome, generally believing that empowerment will lead to them relinquishing authority and ultimately losing their jobs. Most resistance to empowerment comes from middle management. Leaders fail to see how these fears can be reduced or eliminated by setting, measuring and evaluating performance together with their organizational work units.

Organizations often fail at the top levels when desiring to implement empowerment. They thwart its success because they are shortsighted in not training their own leaders and supervisors to understand empowerment concepts, the value these ideas have for the company as a whole, or how to personally cope with change.

Organizations do not recognize the importance of the primary role of leadership in empowerment: to support and stimulate their employees to cooperate in overcoming cross-functional barriers and eliminating fear within their own work units.

“Empowerment begins at the top and works downward.”

Many organizations feel it is better to start empowerment changes at the top and then work down to employees, even though this limits some aspects of empowerment. Upper and even middle management often argue that employees are unable to get the whole picture of the organization and are unqualified to make most important decisions, especially those that impact profitability.

Organizations often forget or fail to recognize another important aspect of empowerment: delegating responsibility to the lowest levels of the organization. Leaders need to emphasize that the decision making process should be highly decentralized, and employees in work-designed groups or teams should be responsible for their part in work processes.

Empowerment is seen as a byproduct. Many organizations look at employee empowerment as a result of an organization’s strategy and technology that focuses on how to improve costs, speed and efficiency, not as the essential ingredient to make it happen. They fail to look upon empowerment as a direct strategy to produce higher quality, productivity and efficiency.

“Employees are not the only top priority… many others are equally as important.”

Organizations often fail to realize that without productive employees they are nothing and can do nothing. They sometimes become shortsighted and fail to realize that empowerment works best when employees need the organization as much as the organization needs them.

Organizations often feel an employee’s real need lies in an increased paycheck or better benefit package. There is a general belief that employees only wish to work for monetary compensation. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and their demands grow accordingly because employees resort to this focus when they are not allowed to play an integral part in the organization.

Leaders forget to follow the golden rule: they must treat their employees the way they would want their bosses to treat them. Leaders must define what their actions and words mean to employees so that they realize concepts of fairness, respect, and consideration are an important element in the overall work culture and climate.

Adapted from: Empowerment: Pinpoint Leadership Skill Development Training Series by Timothy Bednarz (Majorium Business Press, Stevens Point, WI 2011).

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