How to Create a Culture of Empowerment and Initiative

Written by CultureCon 2021 Breakout Speaker Dr. Johanna Pagonis.




Not too long ago I was a guest speaker on a webcast hosted by F2 Legal Counsel to discuss how the worlds of occupational health and safety (OH&S) and organizational culture have collided during Covid-19. The purpose of the webcast was to explore how OH&S has become an issue that all organizations need to be on top of and no longer have the luxury of saying, OH&S is only for the safety industry, it doesn’t apply to me. Covid-19 has brought risk into all of our workspaces and will create challenges for all businesses as they're open. Many businesses are rapidly trying to figure out what their reopening strategies and processeswill be through each phase. But they will also have to consider how to ensure their staff will abide by those processes. Or better yet, empower their employees to make risk effective decisions when there is no process for an unforeseen situation.


Now more than ever, organizations need to empower their employees to make decisions that will maintain everyone’s safety. But the bigger question here is not about how to enact OH&S strategies, but how to create a culture where everyone role-models the values and behaviours that contribute to a physical and psychologically safe work environment. I will illustrate with an example.


Several months ago (before Covid-19), I was speaking with a hair and spa salon owner and we were discussing an issue in regard to one of his stylists who had committed a serious safety infraction. Although the stylist received training before and after the incident, he still made the same mistake one week later! Now as he reopens his salon, he is concerned about all of his employees making decisions that will keep everyone safe. For instance, wearing masks, ensuring clients are not sick at time of their appointment, sanitizing all equipment between client visits, etc. He operates a rather large salon and he wants to make sure he doesn’t have to watch everyone like a hawk as he slowly brings back services through each phase. He wants to be able to trust his staff, like all good leaders do. The salon owner has two choices: trust his staff will make risk effective decisions that will be in the best interest of the salon and its clients OR watch everyone like a hawk and grumble at them when they make a mistake.


So, what can leaders do to create a positive culture that ensures the safety and well-being of its people and customers? Well, here are five strategies I trust will go a long way in creating a culture of empowerment and initiative:


1. Empower your people: I have seen the term empower be totally misrepresented and misused. It is one of those terms, like strategic and engagement people like to use a lot but have no idea of how to implement it in practice. Empowerment is more than delegating work, it’s about how you delegate work. You have to explain the context, you have to ensure your employees have the tools, and finally (and most importantly) the permission to complete the task in away your employees see appropriate and effective.


Makes sense, right? But yet I have coached one too many leaders in getting them to be self-aware of the death grip they have on the reigns. They are so terrified that someone will make a mistake, so they own all of the work and end up delegating work that is meaningless and unmotivating. This leads to a disengaged workforce that has lost confidence in taking initiative. Employees like living up to a challenge. They want their leader to trust them and support them if they make a mistake. Mistakes are the gateway to innovation. When we create a culture that has a low tolerance to risk, we stifle advancement.


2. Check in on employee’s needs: After you have delegated work, now your role becomes to check in on your employees from time to time to see how they are doing. Good leaders connect with their teams regularly to ask questions like, how are things going? Any obstacles you are challenged with? Are there new risks you encountered that we didn’t anticipate?


The goal isn’t to solve their problems, but to guide and mentor them to find the solution. It’s about encouraging them to trust their instincts. They need to keep you in the loop, but you don’t want to rescue them. This will go a long way in developing your employees’ confidence and problem-solving abilities, which will free you up to do your actual job.


3. Recognize your employees: Recognize their efforts, even when they make a mistake. You need to support them in their failures as much as you do in their successes. Once again, this will go a long way in developing your employees’ confidence to take initiative and try new things that will contribute the advancement of your organization. You should also find out how your employees like to be recognized. Some individuals like public acknowledgement, whereas others prefer a private thank you. There is nothing worse than praising an introvert’s efforts in a public forum. That can actually have the reverse effect thenwhat you intended.


4. Demonstrate compassion and empathy: I would like to say this is self-explanatory, but I am still surprised at how many people get this wrong. Compassion and empathy are not about owning someone’s emotions, nor is it about sympathy. You should never feel sorry for someone. Instead of telling someone you feel sorry for them, listen instead. Ask open-ended questions to get a sense of what your employees are struggling with, encourage them to generate solutions and let them know you are there for support. If someone makes a mistake, hold them accountable.


You can still be compassionate while holding people accountable for their actions. It’s called care and candor. The more compassionate you are towards you employees, the more they will respect you when you tell them the truth. Even if the truth hurts. No one likes to make mistakes and it is even worse when you get feedback to that effect. But without feedback, you are setting your employees up to make the same mistake. Most performance issues are the result of managers not wanting to deal with the employee behaviour. Managers let it go on for so long that it eventually progresses to an employee dismissal, when in fact it should be the manager that gets dismissed.


5. Communicate, communicate, and...communicate: Just in case it wasn’t clear in points 1-4, a leader should be communicating a lot! I mentored a manager, we will call him Tim. Tim was notorious for walking into his employees’ office fifteen minutes before the end of the day to rapid fire a bunch of tasks, and then walk away leaving his team confused and stressed. He didn’t provide the context of the task, he didn’t check to see if they had any questions, nor did he give them enough time to process what he was asking them to do. He was the opposite of a micromanager. He rarely connected with his team. They were lucky if they saw him once over a two-week period.


One Friday, the CEO told the managers in the office everyone could be released one hour early. The end of the day came, and Tim went home one hour early. Unfortunately, he forgot to tell his team. His team stayed in the office till the end of the day. You can imagine how upset they were when they discovered what happened on Monday morning. Especially, when they found out that Tim went home early and they didn’t!


It is best to err on the side of caution and over communicate. Even if you do not have all the answers. The point is not to have all the answers, but to create a space where your employees can come to you and troubleshoot solutions. Even if you don’t know all the information, the fact that you encourage your people to come to you when they need support (and support can be in the form of listening) is enough to create a trusting work environment. All of these strategies will go a long way in establishing trust with your people. It will show them that you are human, you care about them, and you are on top of things. Your employees will know they can rely on you.


I heard Sir Ken Robinson give a TED talk regarding leadership, which I found inspiring.“The real role of a leader is not command and control, but climate control. Creating the right climate of possibility.”Empowering your employees should not be seen as too time-consuming. It is an investment in your organization and your people. If the conditions in the workplace change to support learning, the relationships between managers and their employees will grow. People will be empowered to be creative and take initiative, which will lead to inspiring, engaging, and supportive workplaces.



About the author:


Dr. Johanna Pagonis is the owner of the leadership consulting firm, Sinogap Solutions. She has 20 years’ experience in leadership and organizational development gained throughout her professional and academic career. Her company specializes in working with small to medium sized businesses in developing employee engagement and leadership strategies that will contribute to a company’s ability to continually grow and achieve its mission.


Johanna is also the author to the newly released book, Choose to Be a Leader Others Would Want to Follow: How to Lead with Heart and Purpose, grew out of her desire to support managers in learning how to become emotionally intelligent leaders that can achieve organizational success while inspiring and motivating others.


Her goal for this book is that people, especially leaders in top ranks, will be motivated to create a workplace environment where managers are supported and encouraged to embrace their vulnerability. Johanna explores the workplace as an enriched landscape for managerial learning and leadership development. Choose to Be a Leader Others Would Want to Follow is now available on Amazon and Kobo.





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