The answer to “Are you empowered?” likely depends on who is being asked. I bet team leaders, department heads, presidents or CEOs would say individual team members are empowered, but the individuals they lead would say, “No, I am not.”
It is this subtle conflict that I think gives the word empowerment a bad rap. But in my professional experience, a truly empowered company or team boosts overall effectiveness and performance dramatically.
Understanding the disconnect
The word empower as defined by Merriam Webster: “To give power or official authority to someone.” Seems so simple. I do not tell my kids they are empowered (because that word would be meaningless to them), but I do give them the power and authority to make their own choices about friends, the sports they participate in, and, as I mentioned last week, choosing a college.
The idea of empowerment creates the potential for so many wonderful things:
- Increased capacity for the leader and the team
- Increased confidence for the individuals in their own abilities and choices
- Learning to make and live with decisions
- Creating a crop of future leaders
So why does it seems like there is a disconnect between leaders and their team members when it comes to the idea of empowerment?
Creating an empowered team or company takes more than words and a laminated policy hanging from a wall. You enable empowerment through your culture and your leadership. Here’s what you need:
- Strategy: Your employee GPS.The key to empowerment is strategy. As a leader, you need to provide guidance on where you want to get to as a team or a company. What is your strategic destination? Strategy is a personal GPS for empowered individuals. Giving a person the “authority” to make choices without context makes it hard for the individual to make the necessary trade-offs in their day-to-day decision-making, as they try to pursue and execute your vision.
Does your team know your strategy? Better yet, can they explain it? If not, then they are not empowered.
- Trust: A combination of competence and character.
Strategy is important, but it is not enough – you must have and demonstrate trust in those you have empowered. Do not give authority to someone you do not trust; it is that simple. You will frustrate them and you will waste a lot of your time policing them.
Trust has many facets. To empower someone, you must make sure you trust the person’s competence and character. You need to have the confidence that they can do the job. You must also trust that they will do it in a way that is right for the organization, not their own self-interest. These empowered people not only represent your company’s brand; they represent your leadership brand. Look around at your direct reports. Do you trust them? Why or why not? Be honest with your assessment. By providing strategy to those you trust, you have the foundation for empowerment.
3: Accountability: But with a willingness to fail.
Now all you need to do is create an environment where those you have empowered feel it is safe to use the authority they have been given to make decisions and drive change. Creating this environment takes a combination of a willingness to fail, but with an emphasis on accountability.
I know that seems contradictory, so let me explain. You have provided strategy so people can make decisions with context, and you have given authority to people you trust. When they make decisions in that context and actually fail, you need to be there to support them and pick them up. You want them to learn from their mistakes, but have the confidence to try again. You want a culture where it is ok to fail in pursuit of the strategy, as long as you get up and try again.
That said, if they act against your strategy or out of context, they need to be accountable. You need to understand why they acted outside the strategy. If it is truly a misunderstanding, this is a chance for you to further clarify the strategy. If you feel they understood and still acted outside the strategy, that’s something else entirely. You cannot let empowerment undermine your authority as the business leader. It is tricky, but in the end, you are the leader and you are responsible for guiding the team.
It is that time of year where a lot of us are doing budgeting and planning for our business. Do yourself a favor – get the most out of your plan by spending some time building and nurturing an empowered culture. Make it grassroots; start with your team or your department and show the rest of the organization how it can boost effectiveness and team performance, not to mention your employees’ overall job satisfaction and professional confidence.