Bring out the best in employees through empowerment

Empowering staff members can be challenging for new IT managers. Take this advice from a management guru about how to share responsibility and relinquish control to the talented members of your IT staff.

Over the past several decades, the traditional superior-subordinate model for management has given way to more democratic approaches, where decision-making is shared. A core concept for most of these new approaches to management is empowerment.

How can new IT managers use employee empowerment to improve team performance and enhance their own success within an organization? Here are a few things to consider when incorporating empowerment into your management strategy.

Defining empowerment
Empowerment has a variety of definitions. It's often described as the process of giving power and control to nonmanagerial members of an organization. Although this definition has merit, it may not be the most useful way to view the concept.

Empowerment has also been defined as the process of enabling employees to reach their own potential in ways that help the team or organization. This definition focuses less on control and power and more on managing human resources through coordination and facilitation.

The empowerment of employees allows them more control and responsibility over their work. Your role as manager shifts from control to facilitation and coordination of work processes. There is less focus on decision making and more focus on good communications, education and training, and leadership. One of your primary roles becomes to help team members develop the confidence and skills to make good decisions and to maximize their full potential.

It's a process
Employee empowerment is a process and not an event. Tapping into employees' potential should be incorporated into the way things are done within a team. You need to be consistent in providing staff members with opportunities to make decisions and be innovative. Your staff must be willing to accept the responsibility that comes with empowerment. This process requires commitment and patience from both you and your team members.

Teach your team to embrace empowerment
It is a mistake to assume that staff members will naturally understand or accept empowerment. How many times have you heard from team members that something is not their responsibility or that it's not what they were hired to do? In many ways, traditional organizations have encouraged conformity and loyalty from employees at the expense of innovation and flexibility. The clich�s "don't rock the boat" and "toe the line" have been a part of many organizational cultures for a long time. A lot of staff members will have to be convinced that your efforts to empower them are sincere and are not a passing fad to be replaced next month with another management approach.

Don't drag team members kicking and screaming into being empowered. Take as long as necessary to create the understanding and trust that will enable staff members to embrace the increase in responsibility and accountability that comes with empowerment.

Learn to share responsibility and success
It is also a mistake to assume that you will naturally understand and accept empowerment. Empowering employees to use their full potential requires a managerial tradeoff. You will have to give up the notion that you can and should fully control the work environment. In return, you will not have to bear all the responsibility and headaches for work team activities; they will be shared with team members.

Examine your own feelings and beliefs about managerial control and how comfortable you are sharing responsibility with team members. You don't have to be totally comfortable with giving up control; just be willing to focus less on control and more on facilitation and coordination.

Empowerment efforts must come from the top
Analyze how well your efforts to empower staff will be accepted by senior management. It is not always enough for you to be enlightened about employee empowerment. A certain amount of acceptance and commitment is required from organization policy makers as well.

A less-enlightened senior manager may interpret your lack of focus on control as being weak and hesitant. It is important to brief appropriate senior managers about the approach you are taking with your team and obtain some level of commitment from them, even if it is just an acknowledgment that they understand what you are doing.

Example scenario
Here's a fictitious scenario that will illustrate some of the points I've made. Nicole is the new manager of a LAN team in a midsize company in the South. She has worked for several years as a LAN technician and help desk coordinator, so she feels comfortable maintaining a LAN and working with customer service. Her immediate supervisor informed her that her primary goals would include improving morale among the LAN team and improving the operation of the help desk activity. He said he wanted her to "take charge" and turn things around as quickly as she could.

Nicole spoke to each team member and reviewed his or her credentials. They seemed to be a highly talented group of people, but it was clear that they were frustrated at the relatively poor image the team had with the rest of the organization. Nicole had received training in participatory approaches to management and had worked for a supervisor who had given his team members considerable latitude in how they performed their work. She believed that the best way she could "take charge" was to provide the vision for what should be accomplished and then give her staff the freedom to follow through on their responsibilities. She liked the idea of her team members owning their job responsibilities instead of relying on her to make everyday decisions for them.

Nicole told her staff that she was going to delegate many tasks and responsibilities to them and that her primary role would be to focus on the big picture. She would coordinate their activities to make sure the team was operating at the highest level possible. Nicole approached her supervisor to explain her plans for managing the team. He was skeptical about her team's ability to take the initiative on establishing and maintaining outstanding LAN service and indicated that he was holding her accountable for the team's performance.

Nicole agreed that she was ultimately responsible for how the team performed but added that she was committed to empowering them to function at their potential. Nicole's supervisor said that she could proceed with her plans and that they would review the team's progress on a regular basis to make sure that it was performing adequately. Nicole reported to her staff that she was being held accountable for the overall performance of the team, but that she was holding them accountable for their work and their ability to contribute.

The moral of this story is that Nicole became committed to her management vision to empower her staff, developed a strategy to implement her vision, and then covered her bases by communicating her intentions with her supervisor and team members. It is hard to say if Nicole will be ultimately successful, but she increased her chances by laying a solid foundation for the empowerment process within her team.

Final thoughts
The concept of employee empowerment holds a great deal of promise in today's IT work environment. Employees are, in general, better trained and educated than in the past. They may expect, and be capable of, assuming more responsibility for their work.

However, two important aspects of the empowerment process for any manager are the need for patience and a sensitivity to people's capabilities. An empowerment process must include an assessment of staff capabilities, training and education for those who don't have the required knowledge or skill level, and consistent monitoring to account for changing conditions and emerging issues.

To learn more about empowering employees, check out Empowerment by Roger Cartwright (2002) and Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute by Kenneth H. Blanchard, John P. Carlos, and W. Alan Randolph (1996).

New manager questions
Steven Watson has 10 years of IT management and consulting experience and has developed an understanding of how the issues faced by IT managers differ from those of their nontechnical colleagues. As a new tech manager, do you have a question you'd like him to address? Send it to us via e-mail or post it in the discussion below.


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