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9 Cultural Norms That Foster Continuous Change and Improvement, Part VI: Empowerment

How can we create corporate cultures that enable shared and agile approaches to enacting significant and enduring departures from the shackles of the status quo?

I’m currently writing a series on the subject, 9 Cultural Norms That Foster Continuous Change, Improvement and Innovation. These are cultural attributes whose inculcation I have learned in my more than 20 years as a serial Change Master, ground organizations in the envisionment of, planning for and excellent execution of transformative change.

  • Unwavering Commitment
  • Results Focus
  • Resiliency
  • Innovative Thinking & Action
  • Intentional Transparency
  • Empowerment
  • Accountability
  • Inclusivity and Belonging
  • Inclusive Approach to Conflict Resolution

A sign of the times! Employees who feel in charge of their careers are 20% more likely to stay at their places of employment.

The experience of work continues to rapidly evolve. Looking back through time to the decades of the 50s, 70s or 90s, you quickly realize how much has recently changed. Hierarchical intimidation to drive productivity; consequences for taking initiative or daring to voice different opinions …these are thankfully increasing in the past. As technology enabled and flexible work environments are becoming the norm employees are being more selective about where they work. And employers must work harder to retain them.

The very fact that today we can discuss and prioritize a topic like empowerment in the workplace is evidence that times have changed. Organizational culture, leadership and the work experience have evolved to focus more on employees’ well-being and building collaborative cultures.

Fostering employee empowerment and creating spaces that meet individual career needs are essential elements to driving change in today’s organization. They speak to the ways in which organizations provide their employees with autonomy and control in their day-to-day activities. It is about creating the right conditions to enable employees to feel empowered to take responsibility for their work and work experience.

It is also about minimizing factors that disempower or limit their ability to be empowered. Today, the best leaders and change masters know how to elevate the employee experience and create strong empowering cultures that position for growth and impact.

The importance of empowerment
Empowerment in the workplace provides advantages for employees and employers. It builds a perpetual win-win cycle: what benefits the individual ultimately benefits the organization, which, in turn, benefits the individual, and so on. It is especially critical to organizations looking to build transformative sustainability.

  • Empowered workers feel valued and trusted. These employees are more likely to care not only about their careers, but about the actual work — be proactive, accountable and look for purpose in what they do. One study shows that more than 70% of CEOs feel employee engagement is vital to corporate success, resulting in 22% greater productivity (and happy employees are 20% more productive than unhappy ones).
  • Empowered employees show an increase in creativity, which is arguably the cornerstone of innovation. Empowering leaders produce team members who are more creative in their approach to work. Unsurprisingly, being allowed to think for themselves and chart their own path encourages employees to collaborate more widely and generate new ideas.
    Empowered and empowering leaders are freed to focus on leading with an emphasis on vision and strategy. They can also focus on broader management Where they are more trusted and have greater buy-in, they are better positioned to build high performing teams.
  • Empowering organizations retain top talent. Helping your staff brand themselves and develop professionally and personally is a great approach to retaining top talent and building brand loyalty, translating to lower replacement costs and retained knowledge. “When employees feel empowered at work, it’s associated with stronger job performance, job satisfaction and commitment to the organization.” (HBR).
  • Empowering organizations build strong brands. Empowered employees are more likely to promote your brand on social media. Employee advocacy and social media amplification can significantly boost awareness of your company and campaigns. Positive word-of-mouth marketing pays well in online reviews, job recommendations and brand emotion.

A leader is great, not because he has power but because of his or her ability to empower others. ​

John C. Maxwell

Building a culture of empowerment
If you’re ready to reshape your corporate culture to position for continuous change, improvement, and innovation, then building a culture of empowerment needs to be a priority. Empowered and empowering cultures stimulate innovation, employee well-being and proactivity. Follow these five steps to get you closer to this energized state:

1. Appreciation and Feedback
​All people need affirmation, direction and recognition. Recognizing and expressing gratitude for other people’s efforts and successes is a simple yet very powerful way to let them know their efforts and contributions are appreciated. A recent survey reported that 79% of individuals who left their employment cited “lack of recognition” as the reason for their departure (Considering that 65% of North Americans said they had not been acknowledged even once in a year in research conducted by the American Psychological Association, this is clearly an area that needs attention). When you recognize employees for their accomplishments, they’re motivated to consistently exceed expectations and more.

Top Tips: ​

  • Make strategic investments into each employee’s development and career Provide them with challenges, training and mentoring to grow.
  • Encourage employees to ask for feedback. When they do, make sure to earn their trust and avoid anxiety by reacting in a fair and balanced way. Focus on the opportunities that will ensue when employees make specific commitments to leveraging their strengths and building leadership muscle where there are development opportunities. Provide the most relevant feedback and be constructive in guiding employees toward learning shifts.

2. Openness and Inclusion
It’s one thing to acknowledge and provide feedback to employees; it’s another to create an environment where employees are comfortable doing the same. Show your employees that you appreciate honest commentary and build this into your process to truly give people a voice. In the Achievers’ Engagement and Retention Report, 90% of employees said they were more likely to remain with a company that was open and responsive to feedback. By being open to hearing what your people have to say, you will gain valuable, actionable perspective. Responding to that feedback in concrete, outcome focused ways will dramatically increase employees’ satisfaction, engagement and well-being.

Top Tips:

  • Be radically honest with yourself. How do you really react when someone disagrees with your ideas or pushes for a different approach? And do you react differently depending on the level of seniority from the dissenting voice? Strive to recognize your own limitations and biases so you can learn and grow.
  • Include employees in workstreams and projects. Show that you value your employees’ input by bringing them into cross-company initiatives, introducing them and their insights to others.

3. Learn from if not celebrate mistakes
Embracing failure is pivotal to success. Businesswoman Sara Blakely often recounts every dinner conversation started with the question from her father,” What did you fail at today.” Failure was reframed in the positive — it meant: what did you try today? What did you learn today? It spoke to chances taken, bravery, perseverance, and progress. Similarly, letting employees know you encourage, \understand, and even expect mistakes, and will have their backs no matter what, is key to empowerment.

Top Tips:

  • Ensure employees have the proper resources to act, whether that’s necessary technology, or simply all the information needed to action a task. Don’t set unnecessary limits simply because that’s how it’s always been. Encourage questions and be open to providing answers as needed.
  • Share outcomes ‘early, ugly and often’. As previous Accenture CMO, Amy Fuller, would always say, this “cultivates an environment of agile creation, experimentation, and new thinking.”

4. Set clear expectations and embolden employees to execute
One of the most important steps in creating a culture of empowerment is setting clear expectations, then stepping back to allow employees to exceed expectations. For this to succeed, you first must decide, and clearly communicate about, the level of authority employees will have regarding their various tasks and roles, making sure it’s appropriate to their abilities.

By doing this in incremental phases, you can be sure that employees are comfortable and confident in what they are expected to do autonomously while benefiting from mentoring and management where they need to develop. Work quality then also remains at a high standard. This process will grow responsibility and accountability and the employees’ skills and competencies. And when you show trust in your employees, they show trust in and loyalty to you and a growing desire to learn, develop and expand their portfolios of responsibility.

Top Tips:

  • A key to successful enablement is to focus on the outcomes. Don’t micromanage the process (which can be soul-destroying). Before communicating with your employee, get clear on your own expectations and on what the ideal results will be, then to persuasively communicate what success looks like.
  • Refer to resources such as The Ladder of Empowerment by Elizabeth Rocha and the classic Monkey Management content by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass. These fantastic resources detail how to manage employees around gradual stages of empowerment.

People want guidance, not rhetoric. They need to know what the plan of action is and how it will be implemented. They want to be given responsibility to help solve the problem and the authority to act on it.

Howard Schultz, Starbucks

Building a culture of empowerment takes alignment and agreement from employees, managers, and leaders. It takes a willingness to make concrete shifts in business as usual and embrace change. Show people that you appreciate their opinions, believe in their ability, and invest in their development, and they will do more than just earn a salary. They will go above and beyond and exceed your expectations if not their own.

Explore the other five of the nine cultural norms that position for continuous change and innovation by reading my earlier blogs.

  1. Unwavering Commitment
  2. Results Focus
  3. Resiliency
  4. Innovative Thinking and Action
  5. The Need for Change Masters’ Commitment to Transparent Communications


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