How The Very Best Retail Leaders Empower Their Employees

How The Very Best Retail Leaders Empower Their Employees

Empowerment – it’s a term that we hear a lot in retail but the actual meaning is a little fuzzy. I went in search of a clarifying definition here is one I found – from Christine Chartrand at Atman Co., “Employee empowerment is the process of giving employees a certain amount of independence and responsibility to analyze, control, and make decisions with regards to specific tasks or projects. It means inspiring and motivating and enabling employees to think for themselves and have unique views on certain projects or issues, as well as allow for a degree of autonomy so they can take initiative and ownership.”

“People want guidance, not rhetoric; they need to know what the plan of action is and how it will be implemented. They want to be given responsibility to help solve the problem and the authority to act on it.” –Howard Schultz, Starbucks

Employee empowerment is seeing employees (at all levels) as valuable and necessary contributors to our retail organization, and being aware that they can offer an interesting (and even different) perspective on a situation. Empowering employees is something that we work towards as we guide, support, and develop our employees [again, all levels]. We, as retail leaders,  need to make the time to share and coach organizational vision, involving them in defining the relative goals, and keeping them up-to-date with communication that will help them build a global vision on projects and do things on their own. It’s establishing a culture where people know it’s alright to make the decisions and it’s safe and encouraged to ask for support. When used as a motivational strategy, empowerment can provide an employee with a sense of pride and ownership over their work. People want to feel in control of their destiny, especially in the workplace. 

“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” –Theodore Roosevelt

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There are specific steps great retail leaders take to ensure they are supporting a culture that is conducive and supportive of employee empowerment:

  1. Create A Safe Area To Fail

Employees are, by definition, “risk-adverse” – their natural inclination is to play it safe. They do not always possess an entrepreneurial spirit or confidence to make decisions – especially if the culture doesn’t allow for mistakes. If their boss is always correcting them, micro-managing, or telling them to go in a different direction before they have a chance to execute their plan, they will constantly look for approval before taking action or, worse, simply avoid taking any responsibility or seizing an opportunity to learn. Through an understanding of the organization’s mission and values and the leaders in the company consistently modeling the behaviors that are in-line with these guiding principles you will give your team members the parameters in which to work and make decisions that are the best interest of the customer and the company.

2. Offer And Encourage Self-Development and Professional Growth

Retail organizations should support their leaders and all levels of employee through creating a proactively supportive company culture that is a catalyst for self-directed learning and elevating career collateral in order help develop thoughtful, strategic, innovative future leaders in retail. There needs to be opportunities for up-skilling to help employees understand the impact their decisions and contributions have. Through frequent interaction and availability of resources we can help our team members gain confidence through learning and coaching. The ability to learn drives intrinsic motivation of high-potential employees who are our emerging leaders.

SIDE NOTE: Retail organizations that truly value and place a focus on employee empowerment should be encouraged to re-evaluate their employee handbook. This needs to be a living document that supports the culture your company stands for. Many innovative retail companies are taking time to assess the language and parameters included in the handbook – as existing and antiquated policies sometimes come across as parental and/or condescending – which is not conducive to recognizing innovation and risk-taking as positive attributes or that they are even encouraged in your organization. In addition, many policies tend to cater to the lowest common denominator in the workplace and if we are committed to hiring top talent and asking them to give us 100%, we should be treating them as the smart and savvy business partners they are. Workplace policies should give employees the parameters they need to be creative, productive, successful and happy at work – not be so binding that their hands are tied or innovation and empowerment make them nervous.

3. Support A Culture Trust and Clarity

According to Adam Robinson, CEO of Hireology, “If management truly wants to empower employees to be leaders, they have to deploy two (often scarce) resources: clarity and trust. Clarity ensures that the employee’s well-intentioned efforts are aligned with management’s goals. Trust is the fuel on which new leaders run. Clarity without trust produces inaction. Trust without clarity produces wasted effort.” [Source: SmartBlog on Leadership].

Clarity is an amazing value that a leader can bring to their team. Clarity serves as motivation for thoughtful and aligned action, catalyzing the latent potential of individuals and teams throughout the organization that inspires trust and confidence. Coupled with the ability to translate clarity into straightforward strategies and solutions, clarity produces a leadership style that allows individuals to do what comes naturally for humans – to truly feel supported and led toward a future they understand and believe in.

4. Support An Inclusive and Open Environment

Employees that are encouraged to give their opinion, offer solutions that help overcome obstacles, and see that their thoughts and ideas are (a) appreciated and (b) implemented will feel more confident making decisions. Conversations centered around improvements and opportunities to elevate performance should be frequent with your team, regardless of how long they have been employees of your organization. Consistently soliciting feedback and keeping communication open will help people feel proactively empowered and have a level of comfort offering solutions without being asked.

5. Provide Lots of Context

Frequently, leadership experience lives solely inside the brain of the leader.  Unfortunately, many employees don’t get the benefit of all that information and experience, yet we expect them to make thoughtful decisions as if they have the experience of the leader. Great leaders understand the need to share the pertinent information, without overwhelming their team members, they possess and share it in a clear, structured, and consistent way. Again, an employee who clearly understands the guiding principles, purpose, and direction of the organization can easily make smart decisions and take appropriate action when given assignments, tasks, and projects. It’s your job of the leader to impart your vision, share your story, and to lead by example.

4. Recognize, Appreciate, and Reward Their Successes

When you ask your team members to step outside the comfort zone and take on additional responsibility, that is a big deal for them. We have to take the time to acknowledge their effort, contribution, and results. Share their success with others to inspire newer employees to embrace empowerment and to show that it is not as scary as they may believe it to be. Empowered employees will have gained confidence in their role, they will be motivated to take on more responsibility and greater challenges. Let them. As leaders, we cannot allow them latitude with one project and then restrict them in another. You have, likely, unleashed a wonderful new perspective for your team – help them continue their growth and development in this area with additional opportunity.

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Creating an empowered team takes time and energy. Great retail leaders create a safe place for their team members to learn to take risks and action that is outside their immediate comfort area and then build on the small steps of confidence that develop from success. It’s not an overnight process and if we don’t invest the time and attention into supporting them in this process – it will not be as effective as it should be.

In 2009, a Work Foundation survey of more than 2,000 workers found that 40% of employees possess more advanced skills than their roles require. Ensuring that you are, immediately, starting your team members on the path to empowerment and having frequent conversations with them will help maintain that we are keeping pace with their needs and utilizing their skills to keep them happy and engaged.

When you empower your team members you create stronger professional bonds that are founded on trust, self-confidence, and achievement. When you create freedom of action for independent work and decision-making, your team might discover that they’re able to achieve and deliver more than they originally thought possible for themselves – and that is a very powerful thing.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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