Four Ways to Empower Employees

Lets be honest. We want our children (and often employees) to be smart, thoughtful, independent thinkers and problem solvers. But we also want them to agree with us! This rang especially true for me this past few weeks as the Presidential election preparations was in full swing. Although only one of my sons is old enough to vote many dinner conversations revolved around the political process. This includes some great chats around how Americans transition power, why every vote counts, and how special it is that our presidential candidates can inject humor into the debating process – after all we have to work together after the election no matter who wins. And of course, with four boys in the house we devoured Romney Style YouTube videos and John Stewart sketches with hearty laughs. We also discussed who they would vote for, and why. We didn’t agree on many things but I was proud they were thinking about the issues.

I had to resist the urge to tell them they were wrong and instead simply expose them to various opinions. It was a difficult line for me as their mother, and a woman with strong political opinions. It reminded me of leadership lessons I’ve learned at work. How do you encourage new thinking, foster experimental ideas and mentor staff at the same time even when you disagree with their premise? Just like my kids on election day, empowering employees means letting go. But it doesn’t mean sitting back. You must feel confident that you’ve taught them how to problem solve, and exposed them to all relevant information.  Here are four often overlooked ways to empower successfully.

Let your inner therapist out  When an employee comes to you with an idea, asking questions is a critical part of the enabling process. Ask them why do they think their approach is important?  What evidence to they have to back their claim? Have they thought about  how they will you measure the impact of their idea? The key here is to help them think through the details of a plan, not to tell them the “answer”. Individuals can’t build conviction unless they are part of the process.

Say YES! Show your employee you love their thinking. Ask them to outline next steps.  If every time someone brings you an idea you say NO, your team will stop coming to you with ideas.  When my boys wanted to drop a toy parachute of pudding outside the 2nd story window to see how it would explode, my first reaction was ARE YOU KIDDING? But instead of saying that I took a deep breath and asked why they wanted to explode perfectly good pudding in our yard. They wanted to see which container would make the smallest mess. OK – so we’re not winning nobel prizes with the experiment. But if they learn just a little bit about the scientific process isn’t that worth some pudding on the driveway?  So I said YES. With some safety guidelines in place and a firm promise they would clean up the mess, we moved the car out-of-the-way and pudding bombs away! We had a blast and the boys put scientific principles into action. No harm done, and a whole lot of empowerment was gained. The same principles apply to your team. Saying YES must be in your vocabulary.

Pilot programs Still not sure the program will drive the desired effect? Let it be OK to make mistakes. If we never fail, we can’t possibly succeed. Be upfront, I don’t agree with your assessment because XYZ but I know the program is important to you. Let’s give it a try with XYZ parameters and reassess the program in a few weeks. Will the program work, perhaps. And perhaps not. But your employee and your business have learned something in a safe environment. And more important, you’ve shown your employee it is OK to make mistakes, as long as we learn from them.

Encourage collaboration When a team member has an idea, encourage them to share it with their peers. The more feedback they collect, the better an execution plan can be developed. And during the process of sharing, they gain ownership of the idea that spurs new thinking and dedication. Telling someone to share gives individuals the confidence to go out there and be a leader of their own. For example, at a client’s office a couple of weeks ago one of the support managers wrote some notes about how sales and support could work better together. They shared the feedback with a couple of people and that was going to be it. I encouraged them to take the recommendations and observations to the cross-functional weekly staff meeting – a meeting they don’t usually attend. There were a few “what ifs”, “but” hesitations. With a little encouragement he got over the hesitation and presented. One idea got enhanced during the meeting and put into place immediately, and the others were vetted by the team. That support manager stopped me in the hall on Friday and thanked me for giving him the encouragement to take a leap. He reminds us we don’t have to say yes or no to every idea, the individual can spark a discussion, and that’s often as good as saying yes.

So after you’ve cast your vote – remember the robo calls will soon end and dinner conversations can go back to the latest TV trends, video games or local gossip. Showing your team that every voice counts can empower individuals, and your business, for a lifetime.