Remember the 1950s? Well, you probably really don’t, but even if you were alive then, you had definitely not joined the workforce at least until the next decade.

Whichever the case, you are probably aware that much of what today’s workplace seeks to be is completely different from what used to be the norm in the last seventy or so years.

Back then, and as recent as at the turn of the century, a great number of organizations operated in a military-style environment where the bosses wielded utmost decision-making power and employees were simply subservient to the management’s whims.

Does this sound familiar?

If you are wondering whether you are stuck in the 50s, you may take solace in the fact that many organizations to date still rely on this hierarchical model which seems to surprisingly still work for them.

But the thinking has moved on – many studies have proven that empowering employees to make decisions has way more benefits than hanging on to the outdated structure.

As a manager or business leader, how often have you asked a team member to work on something like, ‘drawing a sales plan for Y’ and after they completed it, you ended up telling them that that is not how you wanted it or that’s not how it’s done?

Probably a couple times more often than you would like to admit.

It is also very possible that whenever you told the employees that they did not do the task as you expected them to, they ended up telling themselves something like ‘but you didn’t explain to me how exactly you’d have wanted it done!”

What you have here is a communication breakdown in an organization that has the top-down ‘you should do what I say attitude’.

And what these conversations culminate in is inefficiency, low morale and resentment.

The company vision is not well synced with the very employees who are supposed to be working towards it.

When you manage people, the foremost thing you need to know is that your success depends directly on theirs.

The veritable key to a happy and productive workforce is ensuring they feel that they are important in their roles.

Employees trust that you will be making the right decisions that will impact their lives positively.

It is equally important that employees feel they have been given an environment that allows them to make important business decisions.

The more you enable them to do this, the more they grow and thrive.

This combination of the feeling of importance and trust leads to a more productive workforce.

One analysis by the Harvard Business Review reports that U.S. companies are losing over $3 trillion annually due to excessive bureaucracy and rigid top-down management.

Mark you that is equivalent to about 17 percent of the GDP of the United States!

Even in companies that are performing well, there is a lot to be gained by ditching the traditional top-down management style.

A study conducted by management consulting firm Peter Barron Stark found that a significant number of employees in great, successful organizations were not happy despite working in a company with a good reputation.

The study concludes that a major reason for this dissatisfaction was being excluded from decisions impacting what they do on a daily basis.

Top-down management often tends to create a single point of failure in each unit, slows down decision-making and holds back brilliant talent from making an impact.

Employee empowerment, when implemented with care is a great remedy for many ills facing organizations. But what exactly is it?


The dictionary meaning of the word ‘empower’ is to give someone the authority or power to do something. It could also be used to mean making someone stronger and boosting their confidence.

Employee empowerment can be defined as giving employees a level of autonomy and responsibility in the making of decisions regarding specified organizational tasks.

This allows decisions to be made at the functional/lower levels where employees possess a unique perspective of issues the organization faces at a certain level.

Think about it as the complete opposite of micromanagement – the management style where a manager closely controls and observes the work of his employees or subordinates, routinely reminding them of what he expects of them.

Empowering your workers means giving them the authority to go about their roles as they determine best.

You hand them the responsibility and independence to handle their own jobs, set own objectives, as well as making decisions about various tasks, deadlines and priorities.

The concept of empowering employees vexes many managers.

Although most supervisors indicate they do want to empower their workforce, very few actually end up doing it.

It is now a buzzword often used in managerial lingo yet barely practiced effectively in most companies.


Empowering workers calls for an incredible amount of trust from the manager.

Managers must trust that the employees are capable of making decisions and set out to accomplish tasks in a similar manner to that of the manager(s) were they to be the ones carrying out the actions.

The problem is that many managers do not have that much confidence in their employees.

They are not convinced that the employees will perform at an equal level to them and so they hesitate to hand decision making authority due to the risk of wrong decisions.

One of the reasons why some supervisors might find it hard to empower their employees is the realisation that they have to give employees the ability to act independently, and the fact that employees will end up becoming actually independent of them.

Managers fear that, eventually, as employees continue to get empowered to make bigger decisions, the organisation may no longer require the services of a manager.

Hence the hesitance to give up power which they believe secures their roles.

Employees on the other hand may also be afraid to take on additional responsibility.

Fear could be based on the stress of the increase in workload and heightened job pressure.

They could also be unsettled by the new realm they find themselves in, of being held accountable for decisions they make on the job.

They now have their own autonomy on the line unlike before, and while this might be exciting for some, there are many who would not feel very comfortable, and in fact threatened by the new development.

These fears by both employees and managers stems from a fundamental misconception about what real employee empowerment really entails.

Managers think, and falsely so, that their staff will be empowered by merely wishing them to be so.

That they can just say to employees, “you are now empowered…make decisions…take risks!”

Employees on the other hand would respond, “We aren’t empowered!” in their false belief that they do not possess the power to make decisions without managerial involvement.

Another misconception stems from the fact that a lot of employers and managers view empowerment from an all-or-nothing perspective – one either has power or he doesn’t, which is not really how empowerment operates.

Disambiguating Employee Empowerment

Empowerment is quite different from the perceptions of absolute authority or power.

It is the extent to which responsibility and authority is given to a team or an employee.

Different teams or employees in different roles will be given varying degrees of autonomy based on their experience and know-how.

Those who have earned the trust, confidence and respect of their supervisors will generally get far more levels of empowerment as compared to those the management regards as suspect.

The manager or supervisor has to identify tasks that an employee has proven they can be trusted to act on their own and those that will require supervisorial input or approval.

Empowerment also involves evaluating the level of responsibility and authority a specific worker can handle effectively without unnecessarily overburdening or distressing them.

The analogy of delivering power to a light bulb has been used to depict this concept.

If 100 watts are sent to a 10-watt light bulb it will surely blow up, and on the other hand, if 10 watts are delivered to a 100-watt light bulb, it will glow very dimly and fail to achieve full capacity.

In the same way an evaluation of an employee’s capability is needed before allocating responsibilities and authority.

Too much and the employee stress levels and burnout will be heightened while too little and the employee is underutilised, de-energised and demotivated.

Both could lead to an exit.

So what strategies can you use to effectively empower employees?


Convey Your Company’s Vision, Values, and Missions Early and Often

You may be surprised to learn that a staggering 61 percent of employees report they are not aware of their company’s mission.

How likely is it that such employees will feel confident enough to make decisions without their supervisor’s approval? Very unlikely.

The fundamental elements of your company must be made very apparent to your workforce.

They must intimately understand where you want to go and what needs to be done to get there if empowerment is to be achieved.

Posters of your mission should be ubiquitous in the offices. Constantly referring to the vision during interactions will also help.

The onboarding process must lay emphasis them and tools to help employees periodically determine if they embody these principles should be developed. A good example is self-reflection surveys.

This should be coupled up with ensuring an understanding of company policies and procedures. A policy is a defined course of action guiding future and present decisions.

It helps guide decision-making under a certain set of situations in line with the objectives, goals and philosophies adopted by the company.

A procedure, on the other hand, spells out a particular way of doings things.

It gives a series of steps to be followed in a defined regular fashion standardising actions across a functional unit.

Come Up With A Decision Framework

This will be a document that will teach employees how to make certain beneficial decisions to the company without the need to seek approval from the supervisor. This would take the form of ‘if statements’.

For example, if you have great confidence in the success of initiative A, and the action you intend to take are below risk level X, go ahead and do it. However, if it’s a high-risk action in which your confidence is low, seek managerial approval.

As a manager, you will have to lead by example if the framework you’ve come up with is going to work.

Demonstrate your thought process to the team when making a decision to cultivate their confidence in acting autonomously.

This is essentially an exercise in showing and not telling.

Remember, research shows that 91 percent of millennial workers want to become company leaders – you will be coaching them towards this and they will appreciate it.

Tailor Employee Empowerment Through Dialogue – Black, Green and Red Boundaries

The most effective empowerment will begin with an open dialogue with the employee.

All tasks to be performed are outlined to their full extent and both manager and employee mutually agree on those that require consultation, escalation as well as those that the role-holder can perform independently.

The responsibility and accountability implication is made clear to the employee before agreeing to proceed.

This dialogue is guided by the Black, Green and Red zone approach suggested by Innovative Management Group, an LA-based management consulting firm. Below is a breakdown of this approach

Black zone: this is essentially all the requirements in the job description. All the deliverables of the role.

Green zone – tasks the employee can perform, is free to make independent decisions and actions without seeking supervisorial approval. Here the employee is given the authority to make a decision or action they deem most appropriate. On these, the employee will only need to keep their manager apprised on the progress of those tasks.

In this zone the manager has full confidence in the employee’s ability to make correct decisions without further input from higher up.

Due to the trust earned by the employee with the manager on these tasks, the manager can support the employee’s actions without direct involvement.

Red zone – tasks that the employee must seek external input before making a decision or taking action. The employee does not have authority to make independent decisions without getting prior approvals.

The manager does not have full confidence in the employee performing these tasks independently without advice or consultation with others or the manager himself.

Probably the employee doesn’t have the right skills, ability, knowledge and/or experience to effectively take action.

It could also be that it involves a risk too high to be left in the hands of the employee alone.

The nature of the tasks could also necessitate inputs from other teams or collaborations between departments to be effectively handled.

Implications of the Zone Boundaries – True Empowerment

The goal of empowerment as understood from this model is to progressively expand the green zone to the largest extent possible, although regulatory and compliance regulations limit how far this can go.

Once the boundaries have been set, the manager must resist any temptations to cross into the green zone as much as the employee should respect the red zone requirements.

  • Employees seeking supervisor advice on green zone tasks should not be offered any opinions – they will not learn to trust themselves.
  • Continuous supervisorial intervention in the green zone will consequently shrink it since less confident employees are likely to keep coming back.
  • Feeling compelled to counsel a worker on green zone tasks after a mistake will only reduce the possibility of workers takings risks.
  • Truly empowered employees are those that are allowed to make mistakes in the green zone and learn from them. And good managers know the value of allowing their employees to fail.

Contract the Approval Process

Your team is probably accustomed to seeking supervisorial approval on various actions and decisions and during the change process it will take time for them to adapt.

You will require a sort-of weaning process as they gradually get accustomed to the processes where approval is routine and those that require further discussion.

During this transition process, engage them on their concerns and uncertainties to help them understand the management’s though process and where priorities lie.

They should then be able to anticipate approval outcomes and timeframes.

You will eventually reach a point where approvals are only sought as needed speeding up decision making and growth will be on the horizon.

In fact, a 2015 study shows companies that have empowered their employees to autonomously make decisions have a rate of growth that is four times as fast as those with traditional top-down management styles and up to three times less their turnover.


As demonstrated above during the boundary setting stage, empowerment is best kick-started through an open dialogue between the supervisor and the role-holder.

Employee empowerment should be strictly individual-specific. Instead of blanket empowerment of all employees, you should take into consideration the role requirements and the employee’s expertise and experience when deciding which employees to empower and the level of autonomy you should give them.

Remember, empowerment seeks to boost morale and productivity and it is based on the supervisor’s determination of the confidence level they have with the employee. As such it can be gradual.

The process should naturally begin at the recruitment stage.

When selecting the potential team member, the manager should be discerning the level of trust, confidence and respect they will have for the candidate based on their demonstrated skills and past experience.

Once the employee is hired, the empowerment process moves on to the orientation stage where the values, mission, policies and procedures of the organisation are spelled out with the goal of imprinting them in the new hire’s mind.

It moves on to the longer-term onboarding programme where at the very beginning the Black, Green and Red zones are agreed-upon by the supervisor and employee. Goals, responsibilities, roles, authority and boundary aspects are fleshed out.

Once the new hire is well accustomed into a productive member of staff, the manager must have in place a monitoring plan to check the employee’s progress and identify chances to extend the Green zone.

The manager must maintain constant communication with the role holder to seek feedback and continue the dialogue that will see the employee’s most vital concerns are addressed.

Through this continuous dialogue, the supervisor will be cultivating the necessary trust, confidence and respect for the employee that would aid further empowerment.

The green zones tasks will expand as the manager is progressively convinced the employee can handle more responsibility or has become well skilled in a particular issue.

To reiterate, empowerment can be narrowed down into the level with which the respective manager has respect, confidence and trust in an employee’s ability to take appropriate action and suitable decisions on assigned tasks.

As an ongoing process, the manager can only empower the employee if and when he is convinced he:

  • Respects the employee’s opinions.
  • Has confidence in the employee’s decision-making abilities.

As the manager, once you have made the decision that you would want to empower the employee, then the answer to the question of when you should start doing so will be contingent on your creating an enabling environment that will help you grow the requisite respect and confidence in your subordinates.


You should not be blind to the fact that employee empowerment can have unintended consequences as noted above. You might end up overburdening your workforce, increasing their stress levels and ultimately pushing them out of your company.

You do not want that, and that is why the zone boundaries and the dialogue needed before drawing them is the most important part of this process.

You should be able to determine the member of staff’s willingness to take up this responsibility and the accountability burden as well.

Otherwise, you would be no different from the traditional organisations that literally bark down instructions to juniors.

Lastly, bear in mind these mistakes that managers make that hinder employee empowerment even when the intention is right:

  • Failing to fully understand the employee empowerment concept – absolute power?
  • Failing to set boundaries
  • Micromanaging empowered employees
  • Second-guessing empowered employees
  • Failing to provide a strategic framework
  • Frustrating access to needed information
  • Abdicating responsibility for decisions
  • Failure to remove barriers such as time, training, tools etc.
  • Failing to praise, recognise and compensate appropriately
  • Neglecting the need to educate employees on the essence of empowerment

How and When to Empower People to Make Decisions in Your Organization

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