By Cathy Converse
I am one of the lucky ones. Very early in my career when I had a relatively low-level job, my boss gave me responsibility for all sorts of things that were well beyond my “pay-grade.” Assigned to the most important products in our division, I was making decisions and managing resources and timelines that had a big impact on our success or failure. Being given this kind of authority was exhilarating—and a bit terrifying: I was 23 and just one year out of college. It was stressful, but it made a big difference in my career and I am forever grateful for the opportunity.
Empowerment as a part of Courageous Leadership
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my boss was empowering me to take responsibility for these products. At Collaborative Momentum Consulting (CMC) we believe strongly that courageous leadership is an important solution to problems that hinder our growth as individuals, groups, organizations and communities today. Empowerment is one of the characteristics that our research shows make up this style of leadership.
The Business Dictionary defines empowerment as “A management practice of sharing information, rewards, and power with employees so that they can take initiative and make decisions to solve problems and improve service and performance.”
The benefits of an empowering leadership style have been well-documented (Seibert, et. al., 2018). Individuals and teams that feel empowered perform better, experience higher satisfaction with their job, and are more committed to their organization. For the individual, empowerment can improve confidence and provide new and better career opportunities. Organizations benefit by unleashing employees’ creativity, willingness to take initiative, and overall potential, which builds a strong bench of future leaders necessary to long-term success.
It takes courage to empower people because it requires the leader to let go of controlling every detail and trust other, less-experienced people to accomplish tasks they may never have done before. (The opposite of empowerment is micro-management.) It also requires a willingness to invest in these employees, taking the time to support them in a way that will maximize their chances for success.
In reviewing the literature, we have found six behaviors that are essential to successfully empowering others.
- Connect to the vision. In order to make good decisions autonomously, employees need to understand the organization’s vision (what they are trying to accomplish) as well as the leader’s general vision of how to get there. It is incumbent upon the leader to clearly communicate the vision and make sure each employee understands it and sees how their particular work connects and contributes towards fulfilling that vision. It also means defining what success looks like. This may seem obvious, but it is surprising how often employees don’t have a clear understanding of the organization’s overall vision and what part they play in achieving it—because it has never been clearly communicated to them. Likewise, it cannot be assumed that they will know the general parameters or direction their leader has established for the team. By clearly communicating the goal toward which they are working, as well as the big-picture plans for getting there, employees are empowered to make decisions and take actions that move them in the right direction.
- Communicate. Nothing is more frustrating for an employee than to discover they’re on the wrong track because they lacked information relevant to the project they’re working on. In addition to communicating the vision for both the organization and the project, it is important for the leader to share as much information related to the project as possible. This includes related work being done in other parts of the organization that impact the work the team is doing, as well as updates or changes in scope or direction being made higher in the organization. The more relevant information the team is privy to, the more likely they are to successfully accomplish the challenge. Communication is always a two-way street, but this is even more true when empowering people as a courageous leader. Listening is equally important to sharing information and feedback. Set aside time to listen to ideas, provide thoughtful input, and be prepared to act on their good work. As mentioned earlier, empowerment is tied to increased creativity, so be prepared for some excellent, out-of-the-box thinking from your team.
- Enable success. When empowering people, it’s important to set them up for success. This can include ensuring the effort is resourced properly, removing obstacles, and establishing clear boundaries. Without this support employees are likely to feel frustrated and unmotivated—the exact opposite of effective empowerment.
- Establish a learning environment. Empowering team members to take on new responsibilities is likely to require them to learn new skills. Creating a safe environment where questions are encouraged, learning is supported, and people aren’t afraid to admit they don’t know everything will quickly elevate the knowledge and skill level to meet the demands of the situation. Likewise, courageous leaders accept that they do not know everything and they take responsibility for—and model—learning as something that is highly valued in the organization. The expectation thus shifts from “knowing everything” to “learning everything” that is needed to get the job done right.
- Provide support. Individuals receiving new responsibilities need support, which requires active engagement on the part of the leader. The first step comes in determining the right assignment for each person. Successful empowerment takes into consideration the individual’s unique strengths, needs, interests, and career aspirations. This sort of individualized attention makes employees feel valued and motivated. Next, ensure employees have the necessary problem-solving skills and set clear guidelines about when to bring issues to your attention. Empowering leaders successfully mentor their team members throughout the process, checking in at regular intervals and maintaining an “open door” policy in order to answer questions and provide constructive feedback. The key is to maintain the right distance: stay far away and you risk employees feeling overwhelmed or taken advantage of; get too close and you risk falling into the micromanagement trap. Their success is your success, and the responsibility for outcomes remains with you.
- Create a trusting environment. Empowerment can create trust for both the empowerer and the empoweree. Individuals being empowered with appropriate support trust that the leader values them and “has their back.” As their confidence in their own abilities grows, they feel comfortable taking appropriate risks and finding more creative solutions. In turn, the leader’s trust in the individual increases as they see that they are capable of more challenging assignments. This mutual trust is one of the greatest benefits of empowerment.
Thoughtful empowerment is mutually beneficial, creating value for both the leader and the individual being empowered. As I look back on my own situation, I see that my boss did a number of things to support my ability to successfully take on more responsibility. He made sure I clearly understood the vision, giving me clear guidelines of what success looked like. He was a prolific communicator and an outstanding teacher—to this day I maintain that I learned more about our industry from him than from anyone else. He removed barriers when necessary and made me feel that my work contributed meaningfully to the company’s success. He set me on a course for career advancement that, I would argue, not only benefitted me but also the company I worked for. And the products I managed exceeded expectations and went on to be some of the most successful in the company. It truly was a win-win for both me and my employer.
Barnett, D. (2017) Is Your Team Empowered or Abandoned? Eight Ways to Encourage Autonomy. https://cvdl.ben.edu/blog/empowerment/ Last accessed January, 2019
George, B. (2015) Discover Your True North. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
Huntoon, D. How Successful Leaders Use Empowerment to Build Trust and Excellence. http://www.davidhuntoon.com/leaders/successful-leaders-use-empowerment-build-trust-excellence/ Last accessed January, 2019
Lee, A., Willis, S., Tian, A. (2018) When Empowering Employees Works, and When it Doesn’t. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/03/when-empowering-employees-works-and-when-it-doesnt Last accessed January, 2019
Seibert, S. E., Wang, G., & Courtright, S. H. (2011). Antecedents and consequences of psychological and team empowerment in organizations: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(5), 981-1003. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0022676
This article is one in a series on the components of Courageous Leadership. For more information, visit our Courageous Leadership web page.