Empowerment: Getting People to Believe it is Their Business

Future of HR, Innovation & HR | 14 March 2017

Three sales guys had stepped over the piece of rubbish on the floor of the reception area before James Michael, Head of Talent at Ray White, picked it up.

It wasn’t a big deal, but it is a small example of the difference between the mindset of “it’s not my job” and “it needs to be done”.

“So, apparently, it’s not their responsibility to pick up this piece of rubbish in the reception area of their office. I picked it up. It doesn’t make me a hero, but it has to be done for crying out loud,” says Michael of his visit to a western suburbs sales office.

“I can’t imagine that anybody, particularly the principal, would be happy with this piece of rubbish lying on the floor.”

James, whose official title is Head of Talent, Leadership and Culture at the real estate company, says his thesis for his Masters degree in Leadership found that every high performing organisation is populated with a critical mass of people, who will commit autonomous acts of leadership.

“Everything about the system, the environment, everything basically is conducive to me committing an act of leadership right here, right now, in this moment. Why? Because it needs to be done and I’m the person here at the moment. I may not hold a leadership title, the thing that needs to be done may not even be my responsibility, but it needs to be done right now.”

Creating a Safe Culture

James, who joined Ray White in August last year, says getting people to commit autonomous act of leadership requires a culture where they feel safe to do that.

This means they are empowered to speak up about things or put forward ideas in areas that may not necessarily be considered “their business”.

“Sometimes I find too many people, whether they’re in management or not, are too quick to shut someone down who isn’t being compliant. The antithesis of innovation is compliance.” 

Empowerment is an important element for decision-making, says Jane Kelly, Chief Human Resources Officer of leisure and sport retailer, Super Retail Group.

“I think lots of people throw the word empowerment around, but what does that actually mean? At the end of the day, it actually means that I understand the discretion I have in my job to make my own decisions,” she says.

“I understand what I can make my own decisions about, I understand what I can’t.” 

Leading by Letting Go

At the Body Shop, the ability to empower others has become a key competency for managers, says Aditi Madhok-Naarden, Human Resources Director for the Asia Pacific region.

“If you consider ‘empowerment as the new management’, we are looking for people who are empowering and that’s not necessarily the people who are currently at the top of the organisation,” she says.

“So, they have to learn new behaviours. Some of them will be successful, others will be less successful. Those who were seen as people with potential in the past perhaps won’t be seen as people with potential in the future, because the organisation is changing.”

“Why’s the organisation changing? Because the world is changing, we have to change with it or we’ll be left behind.”

Often, it is the people at the lowest levels of an organisation that recognise the inadequacies of processes, but their sense of initiative can become crushed if the responsibility for making improvements lies further up the chain of management, with people who are too busy to do anything about it.

Roddy Abaya, Vice President and Division HR Manager for San Miguel Foods, says that surveys and town hall meetings show that internal processes are a constant challenge for them.

“We need to delegate more power for process change at the lowest level, because all they do is get bummed down by the system, jump and shout and complain,” he says.

“We’re actually going to test that this coming year – empowerment, enablement.”

Roddy wants to start offering training in process change and a recognition program for those who create positive change.

Rather than using a “suggestion box” that becomes a depository for complaints, Roddy wants employee suggestions to include participating in making changes.

“The problem with the suggestion box is that it encourages so many free ideas without responsibility for ownership, I can make a hundred suggestions for the employee relations team, and the poor employee relations team has limited resources, manpower and time, and they can’t do all of it,” he says.

The Bottom Line

It’s not rocket science, but it’s a potent mix – people who go above and beyond because they believe it is their business, and the right culture and leadership behaviours to encourage and reinforce this.

For practical strategies to achieve this, download the Talent Lab eBook: Cracking the Innovation Code: What is the Role of Human Capital?

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