Empowering one’s team is often seen as a hallmark of strong leadership, and yet it may be one of those traits of leadership that can be misunderstood or difficult to understand how to put it into action. When a leader, or even better, an entire organization gets it right great things happen, such as:
- Engaged employees – when team members have the freedom to define the “what” and “how” of their work they are more satisfied, more motivated and better aligned to common goals
- Trust-based culture – Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s work on organizational empowerment shows when an organization has a culture of empowerment it leads to a greater level of trust in the leadership of the organization.
- Reduced stress and burnout – Kanter’s work has also shown that an empowered environment can act as an antidote to high stress conditions which can lead to burnout.
- Better performance – employees are often much more productive when they are in charge of (and accountable for) key decisions about their work
- Improved work environment – a company full of empowered employees is far more likely to have a positive and joyful energy in their environment
- Employee development – empowerment leads to new challenges which leads to growth, especially when leaders deploy as coaches to support employees working through new, sometimes uncomfortable learning curves.
So what is empowerment? The Oxford dictionary gives us two definitions that highlight why there may be some confusion about how to have an empowered team and culture.
Definition #1 – authority or power given to someone to do something
If we apply this to the workplace, the implication is that an individual is not empowered until the power is given to them. Fred Kofman, executive coach and author of Conscious Business described a concept he calls the empowerment paradox. In his panel discussion at Wisdom 2.0 2014, Fred talks of how empowerment is incorrectly seen as something to be conferred and withdrawn. As a hyperbolic example, he speaks as a leader: “I empower you! Because I am so powerful that I can empower you. And if you displease me, I will disempower you so watch out!”
While empowerment can certainly begin with a leader extending power to others, a conditional, impermanent authority is not the empowerment that is meaningful in the workplace. Imagine a workplace where we show up in the morning and check our empowerment switch? Is it in the “empowered” state such that I can move forward with my work? Or am I in a state of disempowerment, meaning I no longer have the authority or power to do something? This isn’t likely to be a motivating, energizing, healthy, high performance workplace.
Definition #2 – The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights
This definition implies that the ability to be empowered lies within each individual, and what is needed is an environment where one can be strong and confident. That in itself may not be enough, as it is now incumbent on each individual to know their own authentic powers and gifts, then to empower themselves from within to unleash them. From within is important: that is where their true strengths and legitimacy live. These things are not conferred upon them by others through vehicles such as praise and recognition, although such feedback can be powerful in helping validate their quest to be fully self-empowered.
How does this look in real life? Consider Amalia’s situation. She was reasonably new in her role as a public relations manager , and because of the pandemic she had struggled to feel engaged in meaningful work. Then everything changed. The executive team wanted a fresh start with their PR strategy. Amalia was told that she had a blank sheet and to propose what she thought best. She asked for any guidelines or limitations and was told there are none … you are the expert! Amalia felt entirely empowered. She knew she had the skills and passion to put together a great plan. She threw herself into her work and presented her plan to her manager several weeks later.
What she heard next was completely disempowering. “Thank you for the great work but we’re going in a different direction. Here’s what I want our plan to be. I want you to present this to the executive team.” It was disempowering and demotivating. Amalia couldn’t imagine supporting the plan in front of the executives when she believed there was a better answer. She was no longer invested in the success of the plan.
But, empowerment takes many forms. Drawing from within, Amalia has re-empowered herself and is working towards her next goal … to find a company that will embrace her strengths and contributions.
So back to Kofman’s paradox. The paradox is that the leader’s key role is to create an environment where team members feel safe to empower themselves, not to strip power away from team members when the mood strikes. Kofman states further that the heart of empowerment from a leadership perspective to create a state where they meet people in their own individual legitimacy and uniqueness and work to release their true strengths and gifts.
With this as a backdrop, it becomes a leader’s role is to:
- Create an empowering environment by fostering trust and respect – an empowering leader feels more like a teammate than a manager, one who creates the space where great work gets done. One key to this is to truly know your team members, their goals, their strengths, their sense of purpose and work to find ways for them to fulfill these things.
- Align individuals to organizational goals – an organization still has a “why” that drives the work and value of the organization as a whole. A key to empowerment is to ensure that team members understand the goals of the organization, why their work matters, and how they will know if they have been successful. It means coaching and developing team members to unleash all of their true strengths in service of these goals.
- Redefine accountability – individual accountability is at the core of empowerment, but how we define it is important. Accountability here means a commitment to achieving organizational goals. But it also allows for risk taking and new approaches that might lead to temporary setbacks and failures. Accountability includes supporting team members in learning from these moments and refocusing their efforts towards the goals using this new knowledge and experience.
- Practice self-awareness – a leader may feel uncomfortable with the release of power to others. Feelings like “what if they get it wrong?” or “I don’t feel like I’m adding any value” can be challenging for leaders who may then inadvertently act in a disempowering way. An empowering leader knows themselves well and keeps tabs on their inner dialogue to guard against disempowering actions.
While the benefits of an empowered organization are quite clear, there are a few areas of “downside” to be aware of. Here are a few things to consider:
- Consistency of direction – As a leader releases the creativity and curiosity of the team, she/he need to keep their eyes on the cohesiveness of the work the team is producing. Often the team goals can be achieved in multiple ways, which may or may not be compatible with each other. The leader’s job is to foster collaboration to ensure such consistency.
- Appropriate skills and experience – empowerment can (and perhaps should) take people outside their comfort zone. Leaving one’s comfort zone is necessary for learning and growth, but it is important as a leader to understand where each team member is at in their growth and experience curve and to not push them so far from their comfort zone that they are lost or overwhelmed by the challenge.
- Guardrails and reserved decisions – Empowerment is not carte blanche. If this isn’t communicated upfront, team members may feel like they are being disempowered when the boundaries are applied. Most organizations still have rules and boundaries, some imposed by external bodies and some defined by internal governance functions designed to ensure public safety, privacy and internal control. Examples are industry regulatory bodies, securities bodies, spending authorization limits, hiring/firing authority, etc. It is important to clearly communicate where these guardrails lie and what decisions are reserved. Often, teams can be empowered to act within a sphere of influence where they can reasonably expect to understand the goals and dynamics well enough to make effective decisions. The zone of empowerment might expand as the team or individual becomes more confident with decision-making authority.
- Efficiency and effectiveness – Empowering employees may slow things in the short-term, especially if what they work on and how they do it has been very defined and controlled. There will inevitably be some rework and miscues when multiple people start making decisions rather than just one. Be prepared for bumps. The longer term benefits of empowered employees — positives like increased effectiveness, better innovation, and improved customer satisfaction — can’t happen if a leader insists on the same efficiency of the old rigid system.