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5 Strategies to Empower Employees to Make Decisions

Mar. 20, 2023 Harvard Business Reviews

Autonomy is a hallmark of an innovative culture. The ability to make decisions for yourself enhances motivation, which turn contributes to higher levels of performance and well-being. It also gives leaders more time to focus on the most significant and complex decisions and explore new sources of value creation. Creating more autonomy involves shifting power from the top and center of the organization to the front line by empowering people to make decisions.

It might look straightforward. In practice, it’s hard to pull off. It’s a big change for executives who have “grown up” in traditional, hierarchical organizations, in which decision-making authority is held tightly by a select few and many decisions are left unspoken.

As a result, employees aren’t accustomed to making decisions. And when they are empowered to take on more decision-making responsibility, they’re often left to figure it out themselves without clear guidance or support. Even the most capable and enthusiastic employees wonder whether they’re doing the right thing. This can feel risky, especially when they see some of their coworkers being laid off; they worry about the consequences if things go wrong.

This gap between the desire for more empowerment and capability (with confidence) is what I call the “decision deficit.” Left unaddressed, employees become frustrated that the promise of greater empowerment and autonomy isn’t followed up with actions and don’t see the opportunity to develop themselves. Leaders also feel frustrated with the lack of progress.

Here are five strategies that can help you reduce this decision deficit.

Prepare yourself to empower others.

Empowerment is a management term that consistently fails to live up to its promise, in large part because executives find it difficult to give up control. They see their role and status as tightly linked to their decision-making authority. Delegating responsibility is seen as a diminution of their power. While they might appear confident and assured, underneath they may feel insecure and lack sufficient trust in others.

Prepare yourself to delegate decisions by:

  • Reflecting on what has held you back from empowering people in the past. Was it a failure when you tried? What could you have done differently to make it a success? What were your feelings when you delegated, and what can you learn from them? What will it take to make the first step?
  • Planning for a staggered transition of responsibilities, starting with giving low-risk decisions to capable people. This helps build up confidence in yourself and others before you distribute responsibility more widely.
  • Considering it an opportunity to increase the quality of your decision-making and to explore other aspects of your role, such as innovation and growth, as you free yourself from some of your managerial responsibilities.
  • Reminding yourself why you’re doing this — which should be to give people an opportunity to develop and harness their (often greater) insight into the product, service, or market in question.

One of my clients, John,* had to re-examine his own leadership style before he was ready to take these steps. He ran a tightly managed business unit, in which he made all of the calls. But his management style — fed by his underlying insecurities about whether he was good enough — was hampering the team’s ability to innovate and meet their ambitious growth targets. Working with one of his direct reports, he identified the employees he could trust the most with some of his decisions, which marked the beginning of his empowerment journey.

Develop a set of decision principles.

Your role as the leader is to encourage your people to think for themselves — not to enact a set of rules for them. Encourage them to consider what is in customers’ and the organization’s best interests when making decisions. Establish bounds for return and risk. Highlight potential behaviors that might derail sound decision-making (for example, tiredness, myopia, or overconfidence). Insist on transparency so they’re able to communicate not only the decision, but the reasoning, as required.

These principles determine the questions any decision-maker should be able answer as they prepare to make a decision:

  • The decision: Capture and classify the problem that needs to be addressed and the decision that needs to be made.
  • Materiality: Why does it matter?
  • Timeframe: When is the decision is required by?
  • Alternatives: What are the other options? Can you examine from a different perspective?
  • Evidence: What do you know from direct experience and insights from analytics?
  • Beliefs: What do you need to believe or assume?
  • Biases: How have you mitigated potential biases, such as confirmation bias or overconfidence?
  • Criteria: How will you assess the decision?
  • Stakeholders: Who should be involved in making the decision?
  • Judgement: What have you decided?
  • Communication: How will you summarize and communicate the decision?
  • Review: What lessons can this decision teach you about future ones?

Clarify decision-making roles.

It’s essential to clarify decision roles, rights, and accountability. This starts at the top. Write down the decisions you’re responsible for, individually and collectively. Consider whether you’re the best person to make these decisions while remembering that you still have overall responsibility — delegation shouldn’t be confused with dereliction of duties.

Whether or not to delegate a decision depends on your role, your (and others’) capabilities, the materiality of the decision, and the expectations of others. The more complex and sensitive the decision, the more likely it is that you’ll retain the decision-making role. For example, one of my clients, Keith Underwood, COO and CFO of The Guardian, said that he won’t delegate when “the decision involves a sophisticated view of the context the organization is operating in, has profound implications on the business, and when stakeholders [e.g., employees, investors] expect me to have complete ownership of the decision.” Kelly Devine, president of Mastercard UK and Ireland, told me, “The only time I really feel it’s hard to delegate is when the decision is in a highly pressurized, contentious, or consequential situation, and I simply don’t want someone on my team to be carrying that burden alone.”

Identify who you can give more decision-making responsibility to, based on both their capabilities and area of responsibility, and define the scope of what they can make decisions about. Over time, encourage them to cascade their responsibility downward once both of you are confident the new system is working.

For example, the CFO and the president of a division might make the key decisions in a large commercial negotiation, consulting specialists in legal or procurement as required. Then, the business unit leader or product manager can make pricing or resourcing decisions for specific products. Similarly, the person dealing directly with customers can decide how best to respond to customer complaints.

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