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8 Leaders, empowerment and accountability

It’s not the tools that you have faith in – tools are just tools. They work, or they don’t work. It’s people you have faith in or not.

(Steve Jobs in Goodell, 1994)

A key element of an effective culture that supports distributed leadership, a growth-mindset culture and leadership at every level within an organisation or community, is empowerment. Empowerment can be understood as a reflection of increased motivation ‘resulting from an individual’s positive orientation to his or her work’ (Bowditch and Buono, 2005, p. 222).

There are two basic forms of empowerment, each of which can play a critical role in the success of an organisation:

  • structural empowerment
  • psychological empowerment.

Structural empowerment relates to the extent to which people are empowered to make decisions within the scope of their job. It implicitly assumes, therefore, that power and decision making are shared through an organisation, most particularly by managers with their teams. To be successful, structural empowerment relies on participative decision making and an open flow of information up and down the chain of command within an organisation, or backwards and forwards between the police and communities.

Psychological empowerment, on the other hand, relates to the beliefs that people hold about their job and employer. It is very much about how people view their organisation and the extent to which they identify with the organisation and its mission. In organisations with high levels of psychological empowerment, people are encouraged to

  • identify with the purpose and values of the organisation
  • develop their self-belief in their competence to carry out their job and their ability to impact on organisational outcomes.

Additionally, in organisations with high levels of psychological empowerment, individual autonomy over how work tasks are completed is fostered.

Critically, these two forms of empowerment are not mutually exclusive and can (and do!) reinforce each other.

Activity 8 Quiz: How empowered are you?

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

In this activity, you are required to complete a poll designed to gauge how empowered you actually feel in your own work or community context. The results of the poll will also help to shed light on your understanding of the different forms empowerment can take. (People can be more empowered in some aspects of their professional life than others.) The goal of the poll is to provide you with a personal snapshot of your own level of empowerment that you can then reflect on with others.

Think about your current or most recent job or role within a community organisation. Indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree with each statement. (You can download a copy of this poll if you wish to mark up your answers.) PDF version here [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

 Strongly disagreeDisagreeNeither agree nor disagreeAgreeStrongly agree
I am involved in decisions that affect my work.12345
Decisions are made at the lowest appropriate level.12345
I am not closely supervised at work.12345
I can decide how I perform my work tasks.12345
I am easily able to access all the information I need to perform my work tasks.12345
Information flows freely up and down the hierarchy of my organisation.12345
I can suggest improvements to work processes.12345
I feel my opinions about how best to perform my work tasks are listened to.12345
My manager is more concerned with my output than with how I do my job.12345
I can influence the goals and objectives of my job.12345

Add up your scores for each item to see your total score out of 50.

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In this poll, the higher your score, the more you are empowered within your current role or community position. You might wish to reflect on this and consider what it is that makes you feel so empowered. Is it the opportunities you have or perhaps your role and title? Or are you empowered by being given permission – whether implicit or explicit – to take responsibility?

Looking beyond outcomes for individuals, why should organisations and leaders care about empowerment? There are a number of different perspectives on this.

Recent research by Lee, Willis and Tian (2018) found a number of important implications for leaders that can stem from taking a more empowering approach.

First, empowering leaders are much more effective at influencing employee creativity and citizenship behavior (i.e., behavior that is not formally recognized or rewarded like helping coworkers or attending work functions that aren’t mandatory) than routine task performance. Second, by empowering their employees, these leaders are also more likely to be trusted by their subordinates, compared to leaders who do not empower their employees.

(Lee, Willis and Tian, 2018)

In a similar vein, Armstrong (2012, p. 396) observes that leaders highlight a number of important reasons for taking an empowerment-based approach to leadership.

  • It engenders greater trust, fairness and openness in the workplace.
  • It leads to more harmonious relationships and conflict is resolved through ‘win-win’ approaches.
  • It supports greater employee engagement.
  • Employees are treated as stakeholders.
  • Employees are more committed to the interests of the organisation.

One organisation that focuses very much on empowerment is the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Group. Their approach is discussed in Box 1.

Box 1: Seven advantages of employee empowerment

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Group is famous the world over for its superior levels of customer service. Less well known, however, is the fact that they are strong advocates of employee empowerment as a way of enhancing the customer service of which they are so proud. So what do they see as the key benefits of empowerment? The following are just some of the benefits they have experienced:

  • Employees are more accountable
  • Employees are more attentive
  • Employees will feel more valued
  • Employees will be more invested in work
  • Problems are resolved faster
  • Customers experience better service
  • Organizations are more nimble.
(Ritz-Carlton Hotel Group, 2015)

So how can an organisation drive greater empowerment? Bowditch and Buono (2005, p. 222) suggest four key approaches:

  • Employees must have information on organisational performance and outcomes.
  • Employees must be rewarded or recognised for their contributions to organisational performance.
  • Employees must have the knowledge and skills to enable them to understand and contribute to organisational performance.
  • Employees must be given the power to make decisions that influence work procedures and organisational direction.

Activity 9 How empowered is your team?

Timing: Allow approximately 30 minutes

In an earlier activity you were asked to assess your own level of empowerment. In this activity, you are required to ask yourself (or even your team!), as team-leader, how empowered your team feel that they are. You might be positively surprised, but either way the activity will provide useful feedback on your own approach to leadership.

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While reflecting on your empowerment can be difficult, reflecting on feedback from your own team members can be even more challenging. Nonetheless, it can be very much worth doing as a way of learning about your own impact as a leader and how you might become more effective by further empowering your team members.