So what exactly does it mean to empower people in the workplace? In Successful Diversity Management Initiatives (1996), I wrote that “Empowerment refers to a sense of personal power, confidence and positive self-esteem. Empowerment involves a process of change that can be achieved in relation to specific goals.” Make no mistake, empowerment of self or others involves thoughtful planning, having actionable alternatives and of course, following through. Did I make the changes or succeed as desired?
The term empowerment is not an all or nothing proposition; empowerment needs to be personalized and contextualized. It can mean giving a new employee support and guidance to meet their first six-month goals. For mid-career professionals, it may mean ensuring they have the appropriate professional development and workplace experiences and exposure to move to the next level in the organization. For more senior employees an organization wants to retain, a sponsor may identify opportunities and lobby to develop the individual’s talent with new assignments and perhaps other perks.
Contemporary organizations are flatter than ever before making “upward” progress unlikely or very slow at best. Employees at our school have discussed the limits in upward mobility and their desire to have new career challenges and opportunities. How can I empower advancement in an educational system where career progression is narrowly defined by years of experience, assuming more responsibility and delivering on goals?
Participation in employee-led work groups like the Green Teams, Wellness Committees, Inclusion and Engagement Committees and reading circles, among other opportunities to continue learning, can get employees involved in leadership activities. I encourage individuals to attend conferences relevant to their work or invite them to attend with me. Finally, because of the flatness of our school, I assign projects that increase individuals’ responsibilities and scope of influence, and then help them be successful.
Organizations and managers must consider how they frame and apply the term empowerment in their organization. Indeed, disempowered employees can be a drag on business goals. Remember, “Empowerment involves a process of change that can be achieved in relation to specific goals.”