Sustaining business performance through growth: What does Mutual Empowerment look like?

For companies that are going through significant change, the challenge of sustaining performance, generating new business, managing a brand, building a team and delivering high quality products or services can be hard to navigate. For business leaders who have tried to steer their team through change and found a direct, negative impact on business performance, the familiar fundamentals of insufficient cash flow, cumbersome product development and unpredictable market conditions are cited as the cause, but inattention to organisational attributes are just as likely to be the cause of deteriorating performance. We keep looking at why this is and how organisational effectiveness can be addressed.

You can find plenty of material that define a ‘high performing team’ or ‘employee engagement’ and a quick comparison will provide you with a core set of ingredients. However, as your team grows there are a few organisational attributes that provide the anchor for sustaining high performance; at Blackmore Four we define these as Shared Purpose, Aligned Expertise and Mutual Empowerment. This article, the third in a series of three, looks at the topic of Mutual Empowerment.

Every stage of growth or change requires your team to be motivated to sustain outstanding performance through uncertainty. That is challenging due to the implicit threat of uncertainty and natural fear that people have of the unknown, resulting in fight, flight or freeze behaviours that manifest as resistance to change. This is human nature and it is expected that in the absence of certainty, people cling to what they know, fight change that is unwittingly imposed on them or in some circumstances, just leave. All of these make it challenging to deliver change but also make it highly unlikely to sustain previous levels of performance.

With shared purpose and organisational alignment, you can remove some of the threat posed by the unknown; people have a clear and unwavering anchor from which to make sense of their roles in the context of your business, even if the scope of roles change (shared purpose) and are able to identify how their personal capabilities align with their role, their goals, their team or the entire business (organisational alignment), even in the event that one or two of these aspects of work are subject to change. In this context, employees are well placed to make great decisions that lead to sustained performance and effective change, but do they have the authority and autonomy to make meaningful decisions?

Having previously stated a case arguing the need for shared purpose and organisational alignment, here we look at how you can ensure employees are appropriately empowered to make good quality and timely decisions, using their understanding of what you’re collectively trying to achieve and applying the skills and experience they are bringing to the team.

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do” (Steve Jobs)

In the world that Blackmore Four clients live in, we don’t always have the same resources, assets or leadership capacity of Apple but the principle of this quote from Steve Jobs makes sense for any size of business, whatever business you’re in. Why engage people to come and work with you if you’re not prepared to give them what they need to make effective decisions? How can you expect employees to be passionate about their work if they have no real influence on how it is done?

What is Mutual Empowerment?

When we talk about Mutual Empowerment, it’s worth clarifying that we don’t mean simply putting the decisions of your business into the hands of your team and walking away. We are not referring to the abdication of responsibility and we are not advocating a system of employee voice that is based on volunteerism. Mutual Empowerment is a deliberate act of harnessing the talents of your colleagues to make quality and timely decisions at the right proximity to the work in order to achieve the best possible outcomes for your business. It necessitates participation, critical reflection and the sharing of expertise or experience to help others excel.

In the 2017 McKinsey article ‘Untangling your organisations decision making’, the authors differentiate decisions based on level of familiarity and the scope/impact of the decision. It is likely that so-called ‘Big Bet’ decisions – infrequent, high-impact – will be made by the organisation’s ultimate authority, typically representing the owners of the company. However, decisions of higher frequency and with varied scope of impact may be shared or delegated in a planned way, to ensure your organisation is operating effectively.

Mutual empowerment requires a level of trust within the team allowing people to speak honestly, ask questions, share expertise, be involved in areas of specialism, learn about areas of interest and be accountable for the outcomes. This is about creating an environment where everyone can use and share their expertise to ensure timely and effective decisions are made for the business. Fit and heathy organisations allow each member of the team to contribute to decisions in a natural way that promotes idea generation, information sharing, involvement and accountability.

1. Idea generation: to provoke innovation, people with an understanding of your business need time to think of new ways of working and you need to create a climate that allows people to generate those ideas. Are you creating an environment where people feel safe to do this?

2. Information Sharing: ideas need to be shared, tested and developed through open and honest communication that brings the best out of those ideas and makes them useful for your business. Are you actively promoting and facilitating the open and honest sharing of ideas or do you rely on people being brave to push change in your business?

3. Involvement: a critical step in ensuring employees feel empowered is to support their involvement in changes that will help improve your business. Idea generation and information sharing may provide the content for effective decision making but if the execution of that decision – implementation of the new idea – is hoarded by a privileged few then the likelihood is that employees will stop contributing ideas, stop contributing to decisions and you’re back to being ineffective.

4. Accountability: what we’re outlining here isn’t about employee happiness (albeit that is a valuable aspect of employee empowerment), it’s about organisational effectiveness. You are running a business so it’s likely important that people within your organisation take accountability for executing decisions, changes or improvements in a timely, high-quality manner. In this context, we define accountability as taking personal responsibility for what you do and being able to provide good reason for the degree to which it happened (or otherwise).

In a healthy organisation, people should not fear accountability as a means of punishment but see it as a means for rational assessment of what works, what doesn’t and as a platform for progress based on further ideas, information sharing and involvement.

The performance of your business relies heavily on the effectiveness of your organisation – ‘an organisations ability to meet intended business outcomes in a deliberate way, understanding and making best use of the component parts of the organisation as well as the interactions within it, whilst being prepared and equipped to adapt to the demands of your future.’ This definition relies on each member of your team being motivated to contribute to the organisation’s success and critically, feeling empowered to contribute and understanding how they can contribute to business success through the decisions they make. Employees who are empowered to take accountability for their work and the working environment are more likely to contribute to an effective organisation.

In our last article, ‘Sustaining business performance through growth: Developing Organisation Alignment’, we outlined some scenarios of not having organisational alignment. Here we look at the likely outcome of not having mutual empowerment, what is the issue if you don’t harness the talents of your people to make quality and timely decisions at the right proximity to the work in order to achieve the best possible outcomes for your business…

Idea Generation gone wrong. People with an understanding of your business don’t have time to think creatively about new ways of working. People who don’t understand your business have an abundance of ideas for how to do things differently. That’s not to say an idea only has value if it comes from the right person, but this kind of imbalance is likely to lead to poor if not untimely decision making.

Misinformation sharing or Information Mis-sharing. Even with good intent, when people unwittingly share misinformation, it’s likely to lead to unintended consequences. If the information is good, then it’s wasted if it’s shared blindly or with people who can’t do anything with it. Empowering employees collectively requires some stewardship, remember this isn’t an abdication of management responsibilities.

Lack of involvement. When employees aren’t involved in the decision making that effects their work, you run the risk of missing important information or perspective in the decision making process but also remove the a sense of ownership amongst your employees that is often valuable in tackling follow up issues / unforeseen challenges.

Lack of accountability. The result of the above is fundamentally lack of accountability anywhere in the organisation and so whilst you absorb that amongst the management team, you’re really missing out on the full value of your organisation. You also inevitably suffer from a limited capacity to learn from what’s happened and improve as you progress.

As with any organisational change, fostering mutual empowerment requires a concerted effort to ensure people understand the business context and can identify ways in which they can personally be involved in decision making to sustain or improve the performance of your business.

Some businesses prefer to stick with command and control structures, retaining responsibility for new ideas, new business and decision making within a privileged few, and in some circumstances this might be appropriate. However, for teams to thrive through change, we believe decision making needs to be timely, and therefore close to the point of impact, enriched by contributions from all members of your team. Change needs to come from a collective effort to sustain or improve performance, this is what we refer to as mutual empowerment.

We are an independent consulting company, offering specialist advice and tailored solutions to businesses looking to sustain or improve the effectiveness of their organisation. Our approach is based on a deep understanding of human behaviour at work and an ability to identify and address the specific leadership and organisational development needs of your business. Get in touch to find out how we can help your organisation.