What is Empowering Employees

In my previous post I looked at, what I considered to be, the five major leadership theories. In today’s post I will be talking about empowering employees and organisations. So what is empowering employees and how do we empower our employees?

My first exposure to positive employee empowerment came in the Royal Air Force in the form of Mission Command.

What is Empowering Employees (The Royal Air Force Way)

How does the Royal Air Force (RAF) empower their employees? They use Mission Command. What is Mission Command? Mission Command is the military term for empowerment. In simple terms it is empowering employees by telling them what needs to be achieved and why but, most importantly, not how to do it, in order to achieve the Commanders intent.

The “how to do it” is left to the individuals or teams to use their knowledge, skills and experience to identify the most effective and efficient way to achieve the desired outcome aligned to the Commanders intent.

The History of Mission Command

Examples of Mission Command can be seen throughout history from Napoleon to the German Army in WWII. However, it came to prominence in the Prussian Army during the 1800s.

Mission Command, also known as Auftragstaktik (mission type tactics), was a major component of maneuver warfare doctrine which Helmuth von Moltke institutionalized in to the Prussian and later German military doctrine. Requirements for mission command was identified after the Prussian Army suffered heavy defeats to Napoleon at the battle of Jena and Auerstadt in 1806.

The Prussian Army identified that they lost the battle due to their inability to communicate quickly and effectively with their front line commanders. They relied on the Senior Commander giving his orders and the Junior Commanders obeying those orders. These orders were given prior to the battle and could only be changed by further orders coming from the Senior Commander by runner or signal.

If the fog of war does not allow the signal to get through or the runner is killed then the Junior Commander will continue with his initial orders. If those initial orders were to stand still and wait for further orders the Junior Commander will obey them no matter how detrimental they are to his life or his troops lives. He would hope that his Senior Commander would identify that new orders need to be sent to allow him to deal with the fast changing threat. Unfortunately those orders take too long to arrive or the orders do not come which allows the enemy to take advantage of this.

Mission Command is designed to allow the Junior Commander freedom of movement within agreed confines. The Junior Commander will be told the Senior Commanders intent, their individual mission, their boundaries (limits of exploitation) and their resources. This allows the Junior Commander to use their initiative and training to complete their mission, in line with their Commanders intent and their mission goals using the resources they have been provided and within the boundaries that have been set.

The adoption of Mission Command tactics allowed the Prussian Army victories in the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars.

In business Mission Command (empowerment) can overcome slow communications and decision-making processes and allows remote and wide spread working groups and large hierarchical organisations to make quick and timely business decisions. This is achieved because the individual or team are fully aware if their resources, boundaries (limits of exploitation) and freedom to maneuver and this allows them to do the best for the business based on the strategic or tactical business intent.

Why do we need Employee Empowerment

Employee empowerment enables a business or organisation to be agile and adaptable and able to exploit the opportunities that occur due to the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment it is operating in. By empowering employees you avoid them becoming paralyzed by indecision, or having to wait for authority, from the next level up, before acting. Empowerment allows employees to act now to exploit the opportunity that presents themselves.

Empowerment allows individuals, teams and organisations to be responsible for what they do and to have autonomy within identified limits. This leads to employees, at all levels within the business, feeling valued, trusted and respected for what they do.

If we do not leave the individuals and teams to determine how to do it then the leader ends up telling them how to do it. This does not empower, this is micro management (or as we called it “the long screwdriver”) and tends to happen when there is no trust between the leadership and the employees or the leadership, mistakenly, believe they always know what is the best way to achieve something.

Micro management results in employees that do not feel valued or trusted and businesses or organisations that lack innovation. This lack of innovation is caused by employees not being encouraged to think for themselves and therefore not continually improving their or the businesses processes.

What Employee Empowerment Requires to be Successful

To enable employee empowerment to flourish and be embraced there needs to be a culture that allows it. This culture has to have the following:

  1. All employees are trained and competent to the relevant levels and continue to be developed.
  2. Mutual TRUST between management and employees at all levels.
  3. Respect and acknowledgment of Management and employees knowledge and skills.
  4. Clear unambiguous communications that identify the following:
    1. Business mission.
    2. Business strategic goals.
    3. Management intent related to achieving the strategic goals.
    4. Identified missions of each department, team and individual related to achieving the strategic goals.
    5. Resources available to departments, teams and individuals. Examples could be financial, time and people.
    6. Boundaries or limit of exploitation (what level of decision they can make and where they may require further support) that the departments, teams and individuals will operate within. Examples could be financial, time and people.
  5. Continuous feedback to management on progress and resource requirements.
  6. The manager must not abdicate all responsibility for the task but instead must ensure they get regular feedback on how the task is being accomplished and if the individual or group completing the task need any further support.
  7. The organisation should be encouraging continuous improvement.

Conclusion

Employee empowerment has been practiced for a very long time but became prominent in Military doctrine of the Prussian Army in the 1800s.

To empower employees they must be informed about the business mission and strategic goals and what the individual and team are required to do to achieve this. The employee must be made aware of the resources and boundaries (limits of exploitation) they are to operate in but must be given the freedom of movement to allow them to make decisions within those boundaries.

For empowerment to work there must be Trust, respect and good communications up, across and down the organisations structures.

The following video gives an overview of Mission Command (Employee Empowerment).

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