Buzzwords, buzzwords, buzzwords! Oh, they make us working professionals grit our teeth and give us migraines. Yet the true power behind a buzzword's meaning can have great impact on the way things are done. Take, for example, the phrase "employee empowerment."

In most cases of business, employee "empowerment" is one of the most frequently used buzzwords within the U.S. workforce. Yet not only are people the most important asset in all forms of business, they are often the most underutilized resource. This is especially true if discussing motivated people.

We are all of us aware of the disconnect between management and staff…especially if the staff is made up of engineers. This separation creates a situation in which two divisions of a company are polarized (a division within the division, as it were). Obviously, creating such a divide in organizational structure does not foster a sense of teamwork. Often heard from IMT readers is the "us versus them" environment rather than "all of us together."

Empowerment can be defined as the process of enabling or authorizing an individual to think, behave, act and control work and decision making in autonomous ways. It is not an implementation, and it is only partly a strategy. It is a philosophy. It is the state of feeling self-empowered to take control of one's own future and fostering a culture wherein this state can thrive.

When encouraged with care, empowerment is a panacea for many organization ills. All managers and employees say they want empowerment, as it is considered a strategy to develop employees and serve customers, which in turn will serve the company. Simply put, empowered employees grow their skills, and the organization benefits.

If it is so great, then, why is empowerment not regularly fostered effectively?

Employee empowerment comes from the individual. That is not to say that management ceases to have the responsibility to lead the group and is not responsible for performance. In fact, companies that seek to empower employees demand stronger leadership and accountability. This begins with executive leadership, through all management levels and includes frontline supervisors. Only when the entire organization is willing to work as a team are the real benefits of employee empowerment realized.

Both trusting staff to do it right the first time and coaching staff to turn around situations in need of improvement provide a support system when the job isn't done right the first time. For an organization to practice and foster employee empowerment, management must trust and communicate with employees. Actually, employee communication is one of the strongest signs of employee empowerment: from constant, honest communication regarding the strategic plan and financial requirements and performance, down to daily decision making.

Take former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, for instance. In the present knowledge-driven economy, Welch believed in creating an open, collaborative workplace wherein everyone's opinion was welcome. In a letter to shareholders, he wrote:

If you want to get the benefit of everything employees have, you've got to free them — make everybody a participant. Everybody has to know everything, so they can make the right decisions by themselves.

Or consider E.H. Wachs Company. Says the company's VP of manufacturing, Craig Lewandowski:

The most expensive machining center will only be as good as the person operating it and it took us a while to learn that lesson. We had to get the mindset that our employees are as big an asset as that machining center sitting over there and we had to go through a lot of people before we realized that.

Several years ago, according to an American Machinist article, Wachs was operating with old and often limited capability equipment. Employee turnover was high because operators were expected to produce ever more complex parts in ever-increasing quantities on the outdated equipment. So the company decided to retool. Today, all but two of the production machines are new, and those two will be replaced this year. With the new equipment came higher productivity, higher profits, lower turnover and greater employee involvement in deciding how work gets done.

Says Lewandowski in American Machinist:

We try to empower our people. We encourage them to point out problems and suggest solutions. When they do we respond quickly and positively. We're not interested in finding fault, we're interested in quickly spotting problems and then finding solutions. We have become very quick and dynamic in dealing with production problems.

If an operator has a problem running a part, he or she can stop production and get the supervisor, the manufacturing engineer and even the design engineer quickly involved in figuring out how to best solve the problem.

When done right, employee empowerment can be a morale booster or a moral buster.

Of course, empowerment can work against the company or division of a company, too: Staff members may be empowered without direction. "Failure to provide a strategic framework, in which decisions have a compass and success measurements, imperils the opportunity for empowered behavior," writes Susan Heathfield, a management and organization development consultant. "Employees need direction to know how to practice empowerment."

Further, while most people want significant information and responsibility, as well as the opportunity to make decisions or at least have a say in the decision-making process, they sure as hell don't want to be taken advantage of. Although this should be obvious, "when employees feel under-compensated, under-titled for the responsibilities they take on, under-noticed, under-praised and under-appreciated, don't expect results from employee empowerment," notes Heathfield. As such, responsibilities should match the job, and it should be ensured that the person is doing the job in the job description — or else change it.

It is a two-way street to success: Management has the obligation to create the environment that fosters employee empowerment, and employees have the dutiful responsibility to accept the opportunity and demonstrate they are willing and capable.

The bottom line is creating a positive work environment. And accountability is the No. 1 priority. While value can be found in mistakes, as we learn from them, there must also be accountability. This philosophy creates a culture.