The acid test of staff empowerment

Many employers claim their employees are ‘empowered’ – but few successfully close the feedback loop

A major challenge for management is the practicality of tracking whether staff are empowered. Given the reported importance of 'empowering staff' for driving a company's performance, management should know whether employees are truly empowered as distinct to merely operating with often limited degrees of freedom delegated to them by management. And, equally, the challenge is whether management itself has fully delegated empowerment to their staff.

The acid test for true empowerment is the extent to which staff will ask and continue to ask their CEO and management difficult questions in face-to face interactions, and also receive publicly meaningful answers from their CEO or management. Empowered behaviour depends on management giving staff the power to ask such questions and them choosing to continue to take up that power.

For staff to be truly empowered in a company, there has to be a system whereby the feedback process on the interaction between staff and management is independent of management, and the feedback from management to staff is fully transparent to all staff. 

The open consumer feedback revolution provides a model for such a system. The key attributes of open consumer review websites (such as, TripAdvisor, Toptable and Reevoo) are autonomy and transparency. For 'autonomy', the system must operate independently of management (the system provider) so that management cannot influence the feedback from customers (staff). And for 'transparency' there has to be an open reporting system so that there is public awareness (ie among other staff) of what employees are feeding back and managers’ responses.

Staff satisfaction surveys are a basic management tool and feedback from management on the comments received from employees can provide a sense of empowerment for staff. Workshops can also help them feel empowered in identifying and delivering improvements to business processes or issues. However, feedback from satisfaction surveys and workshops can fail to meet the required ‘autonomy’ and ‘transparency’ attributes of the open consumer feedback loop between staff and management. Management can explicitly or implicitly control the type of questions being asked, the process for feeding back results and by framing the narrative of results.

The diagram below illustrates the empowerment impact for these standard staff feedback processes: employee satisfaction surveys, staff workshops and open-forum Q&A sessions. The impact is assessed in terms of the confidence and trust of staff in management (as a proxy for transparency) and autonomy from management (in terms of management not being able to influence the process by which staff provide feedback). The figure assumes for simplicity of illustration that there are no open Q&A forum sessions when management conduct and report on staff satisfaction surveys or workshop sessions.

Alan Barlow image

(Source: Barlow, 2017, p137)

For open-forum Q&A sessions, where staff have the belief, confidence and trust in management that they can and do ask pointed questions that receive open answers from managers, then empowerment is being demonstrated. If management does not respond with meaningful, persuasive and honest responses to such challenging questions publicly, then employees will, over time, stop asking them.

Likewise, they will stop asking such questions if it adversely affects their career and how they are subsequently treated by their employer. In the absence of such questions, staff are demonstrating that they have little empowerment, trust or confidence in their CEO or management. It is this feature of how the open feedback loop to employees is closed by management that makes it the acid test for empowerment.

Closing the feedback loop takes the interaction between staff and management to a higher plain with respect to empowerment and trust. Importantly, this is a two-way, symbiotic relationship. Systematically closing the open feedback loop is the imperative for success in embodying empowerment into the fabric of an organisation. It engenders a more engaged and therefore empowered staff.

In turn, this empowerment leads to executives, managers and staff operating in a more open culture, and employees becoming higher performing and more richly engaged, and having a greater commitment to their organisation. Closing the empowerment feedback loop is an imperative for employees’ intrinsic motivation of pride in their job and in their organisation, contributing to improved commercial success.

Alan Barlow is a trustee at Integrity Action and is the former CEO of Hamworthy Combustion Group. His new book, Profiting from Integrity, was published on 20 October 2017