How to Empower Employees by Delegating Responsibility and Freedom

Managers often talk about "empowering" employees. Books are written about it. Studies show it improves productivity, quality, employee satisfaction, and customer service. We all know it's important, but the fact of the matter is that most of the time, when managers try to empower their employees, they miss out on a crucial component.

True empowerment gives people responsibility, and also the freedom to live up to that responsibility.

Imagine every time your boss has assigned you a new or ambitious project, and then taken the credit for the work you've done. Or have you ever had a boss assign you a task and a deadline, but then pester you constantly with suggestions about how to do your work better? In the first scenario, a manager is giving freedom but not responsibility; in the second, responsibility but not freedom.

In each case, these managers believe they are empowering people. After all, they did assign a task for someone else to do, right? But in neither case was freedom and responsibility given.

While facilitating a leadership-development class a few years back, we had a discussion on empowerment. Each manager had an amount they could spend to fix customer problems without getting prior approval. It was a sizeable amount, suggesting the company had put in place an "empowering policy" that required no approval. Each of the managers in the room felt it was a good enough amount that they could solve the vast majority of customer issues without looking for help or approval.

I suggested they take their money and delegate it to the top two highest-performing people on each of their teams and tell them they could spend that money without asking for approval. Unsurprisingly, none of the managers thought this was a good idea.

Here were some of their reactions:

“The policies say that customer service representatives get a lower dollar amount for a reason.”

“If I give my people the ability to spend that much, they’re just going give the customer whatever they want.”

“If I’m going to put my name on it, I want to make sure it's used properly.”

I simply asked the group two questions:

  1. Is there someone on your team who is smart, experienced, and could handle these customer issues? A person you regularly lean on for help? A person you would trust?
  2. If you have the authority to spend a certain amount of money to fix customer problems, isn’t it then your authority to decide how it gets used?


All of the managers answered "yes" to both questions, yet failed to realize that they were in a position to pass along the freedom and responsibility — their empowerment — on to people they trust.

Their people would have a chance to develop their skills, would feel respected by their boss, and would (in most cases) respect the freedom and responsibility they'd been given and use it wisely to help customers. How can that be bad?

More: Five Reasons I'm Sending My Entire Team to Our Industry's Biggest Conference.

Bill Cushard, Director of Training and Development at Allonhill, is a learning leader with more than 12 years of experience in training and performance improvement at companies such as E*TRADE Financial, Accenture, and Time Warner Cable. Image used courtesy of ASTD.

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