Empowerment in the Workplace

Empowerment is a funny word, it conjures up all kinds of different images for different people. From civil rights marches in the 1960s, through women burning bras in the 60s and 70s to child actors gaining emancipation from their own parents in the 90s. It’s a word that seems to be everything good and pure about taking action, ownership, finding your own voice, and not being inhibited by the status quo that seeks to hold you in your place. Taken from that standpoint, it’s exactly what we should all be striving for wherever we work, and whatever our job role.

In an interview for the BBC, Richard Branson strongly backed up the research conducted by business psychologists OE Cam in which they coined the phrase ‘disruptive talent’. They both encouraged business’s to hire individuals who they knew would be awkward, would stick to their guns, and wouldn’t simply stand for the status quo. They both assert that if individuals are managed correctly (not a one size fits all approach to management) then the benefit, creativity, and drive for the best result that these individuals could give far outweighs the potential negative impact they could have on an office / team atmosphere. Branson himself said that he would be a nightmare to manage, but I think most people agree he would be an asset to most business’s. So, when seeking to be empowered in the workplace, consider your own level of disruptive value that you can add.

The truly empowered employee is also truly proactive. Empowerment is not primarily given (ie. “My boss allows to work how I like and just get on with things, so I feel really empowered”) but rather it is taken. If you see things that need to be done, even if they’re not technically your responsibility, do them. If you see things can be done a better way, fix them. A very wise and good friend of mine who built a business from scratch in to one of the premier suppliers of hi-tech office equipment in the UK once said, “remember, it’s much easier to ask for forgiveness than permission”. He’s absolutely right. Do something (positive!) rather than nothing. If it goes badly ask for forgiveness, and if it goes well take the plaudits (and still ask for forgiveness for not getting the OK beforehand).

In a corporate context, there are a myriad of forces that we can all feel hemmed in by. Our managers are petty, our colleagues one-upping us, the company culture is restrictive, our job role too limiting, the office politics nauseating etc etc etc. In seeking empowerment and railing against these forces, there is a danger that we can rebel simply for the sake of it. So be careful when seeking to act entrepreneurially in this context, or put another way, when seeking to stride forward in an empowered way that you don’t isolate yourself. Rapport with those around you is a powerful catalyst in allowing you to step out of the norm.

Being empowered is certainly about taking risks if they need to be taken, and it’s absolutely about being willing to step on to that burning bridge if we can see the value of what’s on the other side (even if it might cost your job). However, it isn’t about simply having to do things your own, or a different way for the sake of it. Imagine what a nightmare that would be to manage. Instead, we should treat our managers as a customer. Customers love it when you go the extra mile, and they don’t mind if you do something a little out of the ordinary if the result is fantastic. Your manager is ultimately who determines whether you keep your job and get your bonus. Being empowered in the workplace is a lot to do with seeing the bigger picture. Rather than being the employee who sits at desk and only see’s their own responsibility and workload, take a look above the parapet and see the whole battlefield. What can you do to add your own gifts to that big picture. In essence, how can you step up and actually be a help for your manager in their part of that bigger picture? It is a foolish person who see’s their manager as the enemy who is holding them back from being personally empowered. Conversely, the wise, empowered, entrepreneurial individual see’s the opportunity to step outside the status quo to give their manager (and the business) added value and potentially some advantage that they never would have seen for themselves. iw