4 Ways to Guide Your Employees Toward Empowered Decisions

Originally published on Entrepreneur Magazine.

Traditional top-down management can create a single point of failure within each department: a middle manager held accountable for his team’s projects and products.

4 Ways to Guide Your Employees Toward Empowered Decisions

According to a Harvard Business Review analysis released in September, U.S. companies are wasting more than $3 trillion every year on excess bureaucracy and management — which is equivalent to 17 percent of our country’s GDP.

That’s an astonishing amount of money, and I believe one of the keys to reversing this trend is addressing a structure that has been an American business mainstay for decades: the corporate ladder.

Today, traditional top-down management can hold companies back. It slows down decision-making, holds back brilliant talent from making an impact and can create an unnecessary single point of failure within each department: a middle manager who is held accountable for delivering all directives and approving all of his or her team’s projects and finished products.

Now that many mass communication and collaboration tools exist to facilitate real-time company-wide work, it’s time to remove the excess layers of approval from your business and thoughtfully empower each individual contributor to take action based on his or her skills and capabilities. Here’s how:

1. Modernize your company through empowerment.

In today’s fast-paced world, a company’s decision-making process needs to be streamlined, swift and agile. The traditional corporate hierarchy hampers all of these things. Its numerous layers cause traditional companies to move at a snail’s pace when making decisions and reacting to market conditions.

Embracing employee empowerment won’t just accelerate your company’s rate of innovation; it will lead to happier teams and attract free-thinking and creative job-seekers to your brand.

That’s important because many of those job-seekers will be millennials. In one study,  76 percent of millennials surveyed reported being more satisfied within a creative, inclusive work culture, while only 28 percent felt that the companies they worked for were making full use of their skills.

The message? You currently have a huge opportunity to attract these future all-stars.

Not that that opportunity will be easy: It takes hard work and dedication to create a culture of autonomous, empowered employees — and that certainly won’t happen overnight. My organization, Lifion, is devoted to achieving this type of atmosphere in our own workplace, and we are excited to help others do the same as we learn what works and what doesn’t.

These three strategies are our focus areas as we progress on this journey:

2. Showcase your mission, vision and values early and often.

An alarming 61 percent of employees say they don’t know their company’s mission. How can these individuals ever feel empowered to make smart decisions without first seeking approval from a manager?

Go out of your way to make your mission, vision and values apparent to your entire team. These three foundational elements describe what you do, where you want to go and how you want to get there — and if employees don’t intimately understand them, empowered autonomy is nearly impossible to achieve.

Put up posters in your office that highlight your values. Frequently refer to your vision when interacting with your team. And post your mission statement on your website for the entire world to see. Then, take it a step further by building tools that help your employees assess whether they’re successfully embodying these principles.

For example, we’ve created surveys of self-reflection for our team that break down our organization’s values into simple bullet points and ask how frequently employees believe they practice each concept.

3. Develop a decision framework. 

A decision framework teaches employees how to make decisions that benefit the company without first seeking approval from their  managers. In its most basic form, the framework can be set up like this: If you have high confidence that your initiative will be successful — and the actions you want to take are low-risk — go ahead and make the decision. However, if you’re looking to make a high-risk decision that you have low confidence in, make sure you talk it over with other people and seek approval.

Of course, not all situations are cut and dried, so there should be a gradient of low-, medium- and high-impact/confidence built in.

The key to instilling this framework is to lead by example. Articulate your thought process to your team when you make a decision. This will build their confidence and show (not tell) them how to act autonomously. As a bonus, in doing this, you’ll be coaching your younger employees to become better leaders themselves. Ninety-one percent of millennials aspire to be company leaders, so they’ll appreciate this training.

4. Shrink the approval process.

If employees are accustomed to seeking managerial approval before taking action, it’s going to take a little time to break them of this habit. Consider this a weaning process in which they learn what types of initiatives are guaranteed to be approved and which ones tend to require discussion.

When employees come to you seeking approval during this transition period, ask them why they’re feeling unsure about their project, and then provide your input on whether you agree with their concerns. Eventually, this will help them understand your thought processes and priorities, making them more capable of anticipating what does and doesn’t require approval.

When approvals occur only on an as-needed basis, key decisions and pivots won’t be delayed — and this will lead to growth. A recent study shows that when employees are given the autonomy to make decisions, the companies they work for grow four times faster than companies with traditional management structures. These companies also experience a third of the turnover.

In modern times, the traditional corporate hierarchy can be highly inefficient and wasteful. The business world moves a lot faster than it used to, so it’s essential for today’s companies to streamline their decision-making processes as much as possible — and thoughtfully empowering each individual contributor is a giant step in the right direction.

Instill your values and goals in your employees, and empower them to make decisions that propel your company into the future.

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