I worked for a VP who loved to empower us to get things done. The first time she said it to me, I felt my chest swell and I had confidence we could conquer the world, or at least execute the project. That confidence quickly vanished when I realized we weren’t really empowered. In order to advance the project, we were dependent on other parts of the organization – teams that we had no influence over. Sure, we could have conversations with these groups and attempt to gain buy in, but ultimately, it wouldn’t be enough because the challenges we were facing related back to the priorities that had been set for the entire organization. The conversations and decisions needed were way above our heads. That’s when I realize we had false empowerment.
Instead of empowerment, we had responsibility without being enabled to execute against that responsibility. So what does empowerment look like?
Empowerment pushes decision-making and ownership to the lowest level. When someone is truly empowered, they have the ability to do what’s necessary within their scope of work. It means they can make the decisions needed for their project or department to be successful without having to sending everything up the chain of command. This may sound scary…what if they make an expensive investment? What if they hire someone? What if…what if they do any of those things but get the ROI the company is looking for from them? Empowerment comes with responsibility. Set the guardrails, ex we expect 10% increase in sales resulting in a 5% increase in gross profit, and then allow the person to achieve that in their own way.
Remove roadblocks. Organizations are large and complex and sometimes an empowered team still can’t achieve their results because they are reliant on teams they cannot control, and maybe have no option but to use (like legal perhaps). If teams hit roadblocks, it’s important for the leader to help the team around those roadblocks to ensure overall success.
Guide the team. Telling someone they are empowered without giving them the tools to be successful will result in failure. If I want to put someone in charge of a team and tell them they are responsible for the success of the team and empowered to make them successful, that won’t go far if the person doesn’t know all the ins and outs of leading a team. It’s important that I guide that person to be successful in the role that I have placed them.
Empowerment is an excellent tool to improve team and overall company performance. However, it needs to be real and not a buzz term leaders throw around to make their employees feel good. Those feelings will not last when the team realizes they can’t advance their objectives any further than before they were empowered. If you want to see success, make empowerment real.
Jana Axline is Chief Project Officer at Project Genetics and author of Becoming You. Through her leadership musings she inspires audiences to grow as leaders and ultimately achieve who they were created to be. For more information visit Project Genetics.