The Dark Side of Empowerment

Conventional wisdom holds that managers should empower their people. That people who have the freedom to make decisions and act on their initiative are more fulfilled in their work and perform at a higher level. It makes good sense.

But there is a dark side to empowerment. It provides a ready-made excuse for lazy managers who have fooled themselves into thinking that management no longer involves managing. That they can tell employees what to do and then forget about it. Then, if things don’t work out, they can so blame their so-called empowered employees.

Empowerment on its own is no panacea. It is just one factor – yes, an important one – in an environment designed for performance and results. Focusing on empowerment yet ignoring other factors can be disastrous. For example, empowerment without direction, leads to chaos. Empowerment without resources leads to frustration. Empowerment without knowledge leads to poor decisions. Empowerment without skills leads to well-intended failures.

If all you do is empower your employees, then you could be setting them up to fail. If you empower them yet do nothing to support them, then they won’t feel empowered; they’ll feel abandoned.

Empowered people flourish when they:

  • have a sense of purpose
  • understand the goals and what is expected of them to help achieve them
  • have the knowledge to make good decisions
  • have the skills and resources to act on them
  • are recognized for taking action and getting results
  • are encouraged to learn and grow when they don’t get results

How can a leader empower their team

By empowering your employees, giving them permission to make decisions and take action, you leverage your organization’s strengths and capabilities. So how can you best empower your team? It isn’t just something you do. It’s a culture. It takes focus, alignment, and consistency.

Here’s how to get started:

#1) Have good intentions — delegate with the intent of growing your employees’ capabilities, not just clearing your plate. It’s not just that you delegate, it’s what you delegate and why that’s important.

#2) Communicate the vision. When you clearly communicate the vision and how your employees can contribute to it, you are letting them know that they are important and that what they do matters. They are not just cogs in the machine; they are valuable contributors.

 #3) Set clear expectations and the boundaries within which your employees are free to act. Contrary to popular belief, boundaries don’t restrict team members; they empower them.  Knowing what lies outside of the boundaries gives them comfort and clear permission to make decisions within the boundaries.

#4) Delegate the “what”; give them latitude in determining the “how”. They may not get from point A to point B the same way you would, but that might be okay. Or even better. Relinquish unnecessary control, don’t micromanage, and accept that your way may not always be the only or best way to do something.

#5) Provide necessary resources upfront. Before they get started, ask them what resources they think are needed to get the job done, and why. You don’t have to agree with them but you do want to prompt their thinking about how to get things done in the most effective and efficient way possible. And you never know, they might surprise you with an idea that you hadn’t thought of.

#6) When it comes time to debrief, give constructive feedback and guidance. Make sure your feedback is SMART — specific, meaningful, actionable, and real-time (or as close to real-time as possible). Your feedback needs to help the employee connect the dots between actions and outcomes given the situational context. The best way to offer guidance about what to do in the future is to ask questions: What do you think would happen if you tried “x” instead? Do you think that doing “y” would have led to a better outcome? What might be the downsides if next time we did “z”?

#7) Recognize well-intentioned efforts and results. Make sure that you recognize the process that led to the results — their thinking, decisions, and actions — not just the results themselves. Because it’s the right thinking, decisions, and actions that will help lead to future results. Let the “thank you’s” flow! Praise people individually, as well as collectively for collaborative efforts.

#8) Transform mistakes into learning opportunities. If you always punish mistakes or failures, then you’ll crush people’s initiative and their desire to be empowered. Start by looking in the mirror and asking, “What should I have done to better prepare my people to succeed?” Often, we unwittingly set people up to fail by making false assumptions or by not providing them what was needed. Next, ask your people two critical questions: 1) What did you learn? 2) What would you do differently next time? Go deep, and analyze the contributing factors and root causes that led to the undesirable outcome. That’s experiential learning. Remember, if your team isn’t making mistakes, then they probably aren’t reaching high enough.

#9) Increasingly involve your employees in decision-making and goal-setting. As they grow their capabilities, involve them to an even greater extent. Now they have more experience and context. Which means they have more value to add. Continue to stretch and develop them. At the very least, be open to hearing their ideas and input. Encourage them to provide their best thinking, not just to say what they think you want them to say.

As a leader, you want to create a culture of engagement and performance. Your empowered employees will flourish when you create an environment in which they are aligned, equipped, coached, supported, and valued. Don’t use empowerment as a poor excuse for abandonment. After all, the more likely they are to succeed, the more your organization will achieve. Your success very much depends on their success.

Make it happen.


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