How to create an empowered, motivated work force Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2010

Mark Barber, Shareholder, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC

Many managers keep an eye on their employees every step of the way, narrowly defining their duties and then outlining how to get them done.

But that management style not only stifles the ability of your employees, it also takes up time and energy you could be using to focus on your company, says Mark Barber, a shareholder at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC.

“When you define too narrowly which tasks each team member has, then they just do task-based things because they don’t feel like they have any discretion, and that’s self-defeating,” says Barber. “Instead of giving them tasks, give them a series of duties that they are to fulfill, then leave it to their discretion how to do it. Empower them and give them the authority to not have to ask you for permission. That allows them to get the job done without feeling like Big Brother is looking over their shoulder and makes them feel like they have an important job.”

Smart Business learned more from Barber about how to move from a culture of micromanagement to one of empowerment, and how doing so can raise the whole organization to a new level of accomplishment.

How can a manager begin to move toward a culture of empowerment?

It’s a letting-go process. I used to be that micromanager, and I began to get overwhelmed with the minutiae. I was underwhelmed by people because they weren’t doing what I thought they should be doing the last hour. I was getting good results but worrying too much about the details. And finally I said, ‘I’ve got to stop this. I need to let them worry about the details and I’ll worry about the results.’ That was a liberating moment.

It’s an evolutionary process; it doesn’t happen overnight. I began with one employee. I thought, ‘She seems to be able to do much more than her job description requires. If I cut the ties and let her work on her own, I wonder what the result would be.’ I thought the results might be surprising, and they were.

Her happiness and productivity increased, my time was freed up and I was able to go through the day with much less stress because I wasn’t micromanaging one of my main employees. That was when I realized there was a better way to do things.

Once you begin to let go, you’ll discover that employees are more effective and that frees up more of your time. Once you let your employees do their jobs, use their discretion and use the authority that you empower them with, you’ll find it makes your own job much easier.

How do you communicate that culture to new employees who have never worked in that kind of atmosphere?

It can be difficult, because some people are used to being instructed on how to do everything. You tell new employees that previous jobs might have limited them, but that’s not going to happen here. You tell them what you want them to do and that if they show you they can do it, they won’t have to constantly answer to you and will be able to do projects without checking in every step of the way. Obviously, you still review the final product, and if it’s good, the process worked. If it didn’t, either you need to do more training and redirection, or that person is simply not a good fit for your culture.

Once you empower employees, there’s no going back to micromanaging. You can evaluate whether employees are accomplishing what they’re supposed to, are feeling empowered, are acting properly with this power you’ve given them and are communicating with other team members. But you can’t go back.

How do you encourage employees to communicate with one another and work as a team?

You put the focus on results and let people know that you don’t care how they get it done, it just needs to get done. If they want to talk to one another on the phone, meet on a coffee break or go to one another’s desks, that’s fine. I don’t glare at my staff as I walk by if people are talking together.

In some jobs there can be overlap, and it should be up to employees to work that out among themselves. The key to the whole team process is that they shouldn’t have to go through the leader to resolve workload overlaps. They need to work together and come up with a very clear understanding of who is doing what. Team members need to get along and they need to be communicating, and they shouldn’t have to go through a manager to do that.

What else can you do to encourage teamwork?

Create an environment where everyone on the team is equally important. In many companies, some people see their job as more important than other people’s jobs, and they want to throw their power around. It’s not helpful to create a pecking order. Instead, develop teams around the idea that no one is more important than anyone else. The support people are no less important than the managers. Everyone’s role is different, but if someone drops the ball, everyone looks bad. The goal is to work together to achieve the best result that you can. And the way to do that is to give employees all the authority they need to do their jobs and create the expectation that they will work with other team members.

Mark Barber is a shareholder at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC. Reach him at MBarber@bakerdonelson.com or (404) 443-6713.