In his best-selling book on motivation, Drive, Daniel Pink argues that job autonomy is one of three essential ingredients to motivate staff alongside mastery and purpose. Typically, efforts by organisations to encourage autonomy fall under the banner of ‘empowerment’.
Research has shown empowering employees by giving them the freedom and resources to make important decisions brings higher levels of job performance and satisfaction. This makes a compelling case for empowering your employees. But how can organisations put it into practice? What actually works?
One obvious avenue is leadership. The idea is that managers are the enablers providing guidance, resources and support for people to be more autonomous. This is necessary, but not sufficient. If staff have strict roles or heavy workloads, will an adjusted leadership style really empower them? Do leaders really understand the day-to-day work of teams across the organisation well enough to know what support they need? If not, why not be genuinely empowering and ask staff to decide what would solve their problems? Why not give employees the time, support and guidance that helps them to help themselves?
Ground up employee empowerment in the Ministry of Defence
Together with the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), we explored whether a ground-up approach to empowerment can be effectively scaled across a government department. We facilitated 28 teams from across the MOD to identify barriers to empowerment and develop tangible solutions to drive organisational change.
The interventions implemented by the teams optimised processes, culture and policies for more than 100,000 staff members across Defence. We did this by supporting those teams through their own compressed behavioural insights project, which centred around a 5-day-long empowerment academy.
What solutions did teams come up with?
So what did the teams focus on and what intervention did they develop? Some teams arrived with a problem in mind already, while others ran surveys and focus groups with their colleagues to understand what challenges they faced.
Here are a selection of some of the challenges teams addressed and what they came up with:
Challenge – Roles and responsibilities: knowing who does what. The MOD employs over 250,000 people. Add to this geographically dispersed teams and hybrid working and it’s unsurprising that many academy teams found understanding roles and responsibilities across their business a barrier to getting things done.
Solution – My role on a page: To save people time by making relevant information visible, many teams adapted a role on a page intervention BIT previously developed for another MOD team. The one-page document summarises basic information about a person’s roles, responsibilities and objectives. Teams linked these one-pagers in their email signatures and in org charts to make them easily accessible.
Challenge – Knowledge management: quick access to the right information. Being aware of what your colleagues can support you with helps but there is more that empowers people to do their job effectively. Lots of teams also struggled to have the right information to hand when they needed it. The problem was usually behavioural, the IT system was there, people just weren’t using it the way they were supposed to.
Solution – STOP, STOP, STOP! Day: One team really gripped the problem and developed an innovative digital cleanup workshop as a team-wide solution. During the STOP, STOP, STOP! Day, participants get introduced to and apply best practice techniques to organise their data in a way that ensures shared access. This has already been implemented and evaluations of the first workshops showed that participants find the format useful and value the transfer of skills that empowers them to do their work effectively.
Challenge – Learning and development: clear opportunities to grow. Giving staff access to the right people and the right information makes collaboration easy. Offering them the right learning opportunities will refine their skills to make these collaborations more fruitful. In focus groups, staff voiced their frustrations over complicated and confusing L&D processes, which make accessing the L&D offer difficult.
Solution – Make learning in the MOD Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely: Using BIT’s EAST framework, the L&D team developed a plan to make the MOD’s L&D offer more accessible and the processes smoother. Shortly after the academy week, the team launched a new L&D hub that incorporated the key functionalities voiced in the focus groups. The team also developed a behaviourally-informed decision map that makes navigating the administrative processes to get approval for L&D courses easier.
Bottom-up initiatives address what really matters to employees
The academies proved to be a practical and tangible way to put empowerment into practice at a team level. Following the 5-day academy, over 90% of participants thought it was likely that they would implement the recommendations they developed. Checking in with them a few weeks after, most of them did or were on track to do so. The feedback we received on the format was very positive. Participants valued the uniqueness of the experience, with 9 out of 10 saying they would recommend the program to other teams in the MOD.
In our work with the MOD, we learned that successful empowerment from the bottom-up is not difficult to achieve. It’s just a combination of giving people the right tools, some protected time and a bit of expert facilitation. A unique feature of this approach to organisational development is that it’s empowering by design. Giving staff ownership over the problems that affect them, and letting them come up with their own solutions was genuinely empowering.
“It gave us the time, space and a framework to think”
– Feedback from an academy participant
If you’d like to find out more about this project and our work on organisational behaviour please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.