Mays Business School
Venture Voices

Strengthen Innovation by Empowering Your Workforce

Posted on March 5, 2013
Stephen Courtright
Assistant Professor of Management at Texas A&M University
Stephen Courtright is an assistant professor of management in the Mays Business School, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on leadership development. He earned a Ph.D. in Business Administration from the University of Iowa and worked as an accountant prior to graduate school. His research focuses on employee empowerment and the development of effective leadership and teamwork, and he has consulted for companies such as John Deere and the Veterans Health Administration on these issues. In addition, his research has been published in leading academic journals and has garnered awards from organizations like the Academy of Management and the Society for Human Resource Management. His work has also been featured in national publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and BusinessWeek.

Creativity and innovation are the bread and butter of entrepreneurship and the foundation of a growing economy. It is not surprising then that business leaders and entrepreneurs continually ask themselves the question, “How can our business become more innovative?” While that question is most certainly appropriate for the dynamic economy in which today’s businesses operate, too often it is answered incorrectly. In particular, there is sometimes a tendency among entrepreneurs and business leaders to think that they alone hold creative ideas that will take a company or product to the next level. And although some leaders recognize that they do not have exclusive access to innovative ideas, many times they only ask their close associates for ideas and solutions. Consequently, some of the greatest ingenuity that a business can muster is left entirely off the table, resulting in staggering performance and, more often than not, an alienated workforce.

However, this need not happen. Indeed, a vast amount of research (including my own) has shown that leaders who “empower” their employees—that is, give them freedom and power to explore ideas, generate solutions, and execute decisions—enjoy far greater success than those who focus only on developing and executing their own ideas. In particular, leaders who empower employees foster greater innovation and creativity because empowered employees take greater pride in their work, hold themselves more personally accountable for the success of the business, and engage in more forward-thinking. As a result, work becomes about more than just earning a paycheck—it becomes a critical part of employees’ personal identity. When this happens, leaders find that performance skyrockets and employees’ dedication to the business becomes just as deep as their own.

Of course, the concept of empowering employees is not merely an academic exercise. In fact, some of the most innovative companies in the world take calculated steps toward helping employees feel empowered. For example, at Google, any employee can post ideas in a suggestion box. These ideas are then reviewed and evaluated by the person’s peers rather than by top management. In addition, Google employees use 20 percent of their time to develop and follow through with their own initiatives. These efforts have led not only to the improvement of Google’s widely used search engine, but to the creation of Google Maps, Blogger, and Gmail, among other tools. Interestingly, the enormously successful and innovative company 3M has a similar strategy, encouraging their employees to spend 15 percent of their time working on projects of their choice. From such efforts, inventions like Post-it notes first came into existence, now reaping well over $100 million in annual profits for 3M.

Many other companies tie their innovativeness and long-term success to an empowered workforce—Southwest Airlines, Xerox, W.L. Gore, and Toyota, to name just a few. So, the message is simple: Whether you are a small business owner, a leader in a well-established company, or a budding entrepreneur, bear in mind that you are much more likely to see breakthrough innovation if you empower your workforce. Empowerment works—just ask the folks at Google and 3M.

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