Power to the People: How Employee Empowerment Creates a Happier, More Productive Workforce

“It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
―Steve Jobs

The relationship between a supervisor and subordinate can be a tricky one. In fact, in a recent Forbes survey, 65 percent of employees said they would forego a pay raise to see their leader fired. In trying to pinpoint how this dynamic goes wrong, one survey found that 39 percent of employees feel micromanaging is the worst offense a boss could commit. Another revealed 69 percent of employees said they had considered switching jobs because of micromanagement. When employees feel disempowered by their managers’ behavior, company culture and productivity take a serious hit.

The solution? Give employees autonomy.

By micromanaging, leadership tells employees that they can’t be trusted to do their jobs well. Supervisors who require their sign-off on every action and constantly criticize but never offer clear direction, create a toxic work environment and smother innovation and motivation.

Autonomy—aka employee empowerment—is the antithesis of micromanagement, says Joan Cheverie, director of higher-learning association EDUCAUSE Institute Programs. Employees who work autonomously understand their role and how it fits into team operations and the company’s mission. This is because they have the knowledge, tools, and resources required to achieve their goals; and know that their employer trusts them to complete the objective well.

Studies show that granting employees autonomy increases their job performance and satisfaction. They feel more company loyalty and more valued, which bolsters retention. Productivity increases not just because employees are happier but because less interference from their immediate superiors enables them to complete their work more efficiently.

Some leaders may panic at the idea of autonomy because they feel it makes them obsolete, but that is simply not the case. Autonomy is not working without a net or total self-sufficiency.

Leaders are responsible for guiding teams toward a common goal. They must maintain a healthy work environment by trusting in the expertise and professionalism of their associates and enabling them to do their best work by supplying them with tools, resources, and support.

Part of that means instituting a strong onboarding and orientation process, which is shown to reduce employee turnover. Investing time in training a new employee gives them a strong jumping off point, allowing them to put their expertise to use for the company without needing constant monitoring.

Providing clear direction to staff should be ongoing. Consistency is key in feedback and criticism. A supervisor who fails to share the reasoning behind the changes they make to the work of a subordinate—and worse, seems to make different changes and want different things week to week—will only confuse employees and stall their work performance.

When it comes to office policies, keep the rules simple to promote self-accountability among staff. Generally, employees who work for corporate environments don’t need a list of approved work attire—telling them to dress appropriately is enough. Or an employee who needs to leave work a half-hour early one day shouldn’t be required by policy to stay a half-hour later the next day if they completed all their projects sufficiently.  

Autonomy does not take away power from anyone, and it does not challenge the natural hierarchy within a company. It creates trust between leadership and employees that act as a foundation for a thriving business. Empowered employees are engaged, productive employees.