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What are the factors necessary for successful empowerment?

Empowerment is generally defined as increasing the level of autonomy and self-determination enjoyed by your employees. Numerous examples from companies like Spotify, Zappos and Patagonia have shown that decentralized, self-organized teams with a high degree of autonomy can produce outstanding results. The research also shows us that “empowering” your employees improves their performance at work, increases their job satisfaction and makes them more committed. Unsurprisingly, many managers are getting on the “empowerment bandwagon” and delegating more authority and decision-making power to their employees. Nevertheless, people forget all too often that autonomy alone doesn’t lead to better results. If you don’t have the right foundations in place, empowerment can result in your employees being placed under too much pressure and making poor decisions, leading in the end to lower productivity. What factors form the foundation for successful empowerment?

1.Creating a transparent and constructive working environment

in which mistakes and uncertainties can be discussed openly. Because having greater autonomy brings new challenges which often take your employees outside their comfort zone, it is vital that any doubts, open questions or potential difficulties can be discussed openly, not hidden away or kept quiet. Role modelling this behavior is an essential cornerstone for creating a transparent and constructive working environment.

2. Creating shared alignment:

  • with an inspiring vision and purpose

  • with the strategy

  • with the values and behavioral principles

As a basic prerequisite for good decision-making, there must be clarity with regard to the goal (vision), the processes and structures leading to the goal (strategy), and the shared values and behavioral principles. This aspect is often forgotten when companies implement empowerment in a naive way – leading to poor decisions, mismanagement, and employees overwhelmed with too much responsibility. Creating alignment doesn’t just mean communicating the vision, strategy and values in a clear and understandable manner – they need to be internalized, so that the employees can relate to and identify with them to a certain degree. Shared alignment is supported by shared language and shared models and experiences, forming a shared framework of references. To illustrate visually how important it is to have a (shared) goal, think of the scene from Lewis Caroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” where Alice comes to a fork in the road, and asks which way she should go. Because Alice doesn’t know where she is trying to get to, the Cheshire Cat replies: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

3. Letting go – properly.

Often this means giving your employees a free rein, not checking up on them, and being prepared for the event that proposals and solutions developed this way may not be fully concordant with your own ideas. This is often the most difficult step to take for managers who like to keep things firmly under control. Without this step, however, empowerment cannot succeed – because empowerment necessarily leads to diversified solutions. And this diversification is the birthplace of innovation. In order for empowerment to bring results, for both manager and employees, the manager needs to be willing to embrace new solutions. It's just as Steve Jobs said: “It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people, so they can tell us what to do.” Only once these three basic requirements are in place can you achieve true empowerment: more autonomy and more power to make decisions. We think it is important to emphasize that this is the final step in the journey; before proceeding to this, it is essential that clear alignment, mutual trust and a culture of transparency are already in place. If you consider the relationship between autonomy and alignment, an interesting matrix emerges:

  • In a company which has a low level of both autonomy and alignment, we often find a hierarchical management style tending towards micromanagement, a silo mentality and unilateral decision-making.

  • If a company in this position increases the level of autonomy in order to “empower” employees without first aligning their goals and values, there is a risk of creating a directionless situation in which employees make decisions without understanding the company’s goals or values, or without any common goals and values having been established. In this case, increasing the autonomy leads to greater complexity and more stress for the employees – at the end of the day, this leads to poorer results for the company. (See lower right quadrant in Graph)

  • Empowerment leads to added value when employees and managers are jointly aligned with the vision and goals of the company. In this case, giving employees greater autonomy leads to increased creativity, flexible solutions to new problems, and voluntary adoption of positive behavior (“organizational citizenship”, e.g. behavior which is not officially recognized and rewarded, such as helping your colleagues or taking on tasks that you’re not actually obliged to do – upper right quadrant.)

This makes empowerment, when implemented in a considered and constructive way, into an approach which leads to better-performing, more satisfied and more committed employees. As always, it all starts with the leadership team being aware of the relevant factors, and embodying and role modelling the requirements described above. Source:


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