Empower the Employees Who Will Build an Amazing Culture

Businesses can truly give their workers ownership. "Empowerment" doesn't have to be a token phrase.

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By Rashan Dixon

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For years, employers have despaired over Gallup's dismal engagement data. The organization's 2017 "State of the Global Workplace" report revealed that a whopping 85 percent of employees aren't engaged — or are actively disengaged. The cost to businesses? A cool $7 trillion in lost productivity each year.

In response, employers have thrown perks and various engagement tools at workers: nap pods, Ping-Pong tables, snacks. Making work a more enjoyable place to be should boost engagement, right?

Wrong: A Society for Human Resource Management report found that 70 percent of employees are engaged when they're empowered to handle opportunities and problems at work. Underscoring that point, a study revealed that people who were highly empowered at work had engagement in the 79th percentile.

Empowerment is clearly a way to solve employers' engagement woes. But how can they truly give their workers ownership and not make "empowerment" a token phrase?

Letting purpose fuel their efforts.

Deloitte found that 73 percent of people who work in purpose-driven environments are engaged. But there's a drop of 50 percentage points for those who don't work for purpose-driven companies: Only 23 percent of them feel engaged. It's clear that employees take ownership when they care about what they're doing.

Related: 8 Ways to Change Your Thinking From Employee to Owner

To ensure employees feel empowered, leaders have to connect with employees' purpose, not just the company's. Wine company ONEHOPE takes a two-pronged approach to purpose: Every product in ONEHOPE's portfolio supports a charitable cause, resulting in a measurable impact both buyers and employees care about. This has enabled the brand to do everything from funding more than 2 million meals for children to supporting more than 1,200 biological studies for Alzheimer's.

The company also enables independent contractors, referred to as "Cause Entrepreneurs," to bring Napa-style wine tastings to people's homes and businesses in 40 states. The wine tastings not only benefit select partner nonprofits, but also raise money for the host's 501(c)3 of choice. To date, the company has donated more than $4 million in connection with sales of its wines, complemented by incremental direct donations made at the more than 1,000 events hosted monthly.

Likewise, TOMS Shoes started out as a shoe company with a novel concept: Its One for One program would donate one pair of shoes to kids in need for every pair of shoes purchased. The idea gained momentum among both TOMS staffers and customers, and the brand expanded its purpose-driven mission to include TOMS Eyewear, TOMS Roasting Co., and the TOMS Bag Collection. These offshoots provide vision care, clean water, and safe birth resources to address other important needs. Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS, says the brand's environment is more accurately described as "a mission with a company."

Letting risks give them strength.

Some employees are fueled less by a specific mission and more by personal trust and growth. These workers want to innovate their industries and workplaces and be empowered to take risks rather than play it safe. A Robert Half survey found that managers tend to inadvertently hold these risk-taking innovators back -- more than half of respondents said that bureaucracy and putting out fires hampered their innovation efforts.

Related: 4 Ways to Balance Urgency and Innovation in Your Startup

Many people are familiar with Google's "20 percent" time, giving employees one day per week to work on side projects. These side projects, often viewed as risks that may not pay off, gave employees the flexibility to explore passions and ideas that weren't easy to implement or test within their existing jobs. But some really have paid off: Gmail and AdSense, arguably two of Google's biggest successes, came about because of Google's 20 percent time. Google's support of risk-taking allowed employees to grow and, by extension, boosted the company's bottom line.

Whole companies, in fact, have sprung forth from the flexibility employees have been afforded. Andrew Mason, a grad student, did database contract work for Eric Lefkofsky, an entrepreneur. Already successful, Lefkofsky gave Mason the go-ahead to work on a social media platform called The Point, which was intended to help people solve problems. But after deciding that a big problem that needed solving was saving money, Groupon was born.

In perhaps one of the most visible displays of innovation empowerment, appliance brand Haier names its innovations after the employees who came up with them. This showcases the importance of fresh ideas within the business's ecosystem while giving credit where credit is due — and empowering its "makers" to keep up the forward-thinking work.

Related: 5 Things Every Entrepreneur Should Know About Risk-Taking

Empowerment is often interpreted as giving people control over daily details like what hours they work or what kinds of snacks they find in the break room. While those things certainly make day-to-day living more comfortable, they don't give employees an overarching sense of ownership over the work they do.

Empowered employees are given the opportunity to do work they value or work that fuels their growth. Anything less feels like lip service, and companies that want to keep their employees genuinely empowered -- and engaged -- have to keep this mind. Empowerment isn't necessarily about making work more enjoyable; it's about making it more meaningful.

Rashan Dixon

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Co-founder of Techincon and Senior Business Consultant for Microsoft

Rashan Dixon is a senior business systems analyst at Microsoft, entrepreneur and a writer for various business and technology publications.

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