Performance Series 2: Leading an Empowered Organization

John Harris
April 18, 2017


Mark Twain said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” While this applies to individuals, it also applies to organizations. If an organization wants to perform at an optimum state, it first must answer the questions, “Perform at what?” and “Why perform?” In other words, companies with clear purpose and direction, and whose people have clear purpose and direction, will perform at their best.

Recognize purpose

This begins with corporate and individual purpose. For organizations, purpose must be well-conceived and more than a statement on the lobby wall. For individual workers, purpose must also be well-conceived. Taking time to think through our beliefs and our reason for living will open new revelations. Workers can start by recognizing new opportunities that bring purpose to their work and personal lives. Sometimes the starting point is realigning a purpose that was previously recognized.

Address strategic direction

Once purpose is established for both the organization and its people, strategic direction can be best addressed. Surprisingly, few companies have an effective strategic plan and the ones that do aren’t usually acting on it effectively. Here’s a simplified guide to creating a dynamic, strategic plan:

  • Clarify your mission, vision, and values
  • Develop a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats)
  • Identify major tasks and objectives to complete them
  • Establish measurable metrics to chart progress

In many cases, the accomplishment of the pertinent strategic objectives can be woven into the job descriptions of every manager.

Empower employees

Finally, workers must be empowered and trusted to carry out the everyday tasks of the organization, and be held accountable to do so. Empowerment includes four key components:

  • Involvement in decision making
  • Ownership of successes and failures
  • Effective information exchange
  • Open and honest two-way communication

When trust and empowerment is low, it places a hidden "tax" on every transaction. Every communication, interaction, strategy, and decision is slowed down, while costs are driven up. Conversely, in cultures in which the workforce is trusted and empowered, workers embrace the responsibility, have a greater feeling of achievement, and gain a sense of pride in excelling together with their colleagues. Thus, they efficiently achieve more. One study suggested that high trust companies outperform low trust peer companies by nearly 300%.

Lead an empowered workforce

Your objective is to create an environment where, through greater involvement, workers become more invested in the organizational strategy. This puts empowered workers closer to issues and opportunities, and thus better able to address them efficiently. To get the most out of an empowered workforce, leaders must:

  • Select the right people – Make sure they embrace your empowered culture.

  • Provide training – Not everyone will have had this opportunity in the past.

  • Offer guidance – Being empowered can take some getting used to, and workers often need your reassurance.

  • Hold everyone accountable – Empowerment is only sustainable with consistent accountability.

  • Build trust – Rome wasn’t built in a day. Take your time connecting with employees.

  • Focus on relationships – Empowerment and trust are by their very nature relational.

  • Stress behaviors and values – Empowerment is most effective when everyone knows the ground rules.  Your expected behaviors and values constitute those rules.

  • Transform mistakes into opportunities – In an empowered workforce, our mistakes become growth and learning opportunities rather than failures.

  • Reward and recognize – Create a social environment where empowered, accountable work is recognized, rewarded, and celebrated.

Drive toward your end goal

Remember that purpose creates the foundation for strategic direction. Strategic direction provides the plan which workers can embrace and be held accountable to achieve. Empowerment creates the environment in which workers can do their best quality and most productive work. Your job as a leader is to clarify purpose, conduct effective planning, establish and oversee the accountability structure, and create the environment in which you people can do empowered work. The result is optimal performance and a satisfied, stable workforce. 

John Harris is a Performance pH Partner. This blog post is the first in a four-part series discussing empowered and high-performing companies. You don't want to miss the rest of these posts! Check out the upcoming blogs in this series we have in store for you:

  • Bringing it All Together: Lessons from High-Performing Companies (May 18)
  • Observations and Advice from Leaders in the Transition to High-Performance Culture (TBD)