If any organisation wants to be more committed to the concept of greater empowerment for all, information needs to be widely shared and not jealously guarded within formal channels or amongst only a few people with titles. But saying this is one thing and doing it is quite another. Leaders across an organisation therefore need to start to act as role models for empowerment and give individuals the room to make more decisions on their own.
Empowerment then is all about enabling the growth of individuals, by giving them new and different tasks to perform (including some complex ones and some previously done by leaders), and not looking quite so often over their respective shoulders to take control (unless this is absolutely necessary).
Just to be clear then, empowering is about sharing information and even power and this is demonstrated when:
- Mutual listening is taking place between leaders and their team members.
- Responsibility for outcomes is shared at least to some extent.
- There is a two-way discussion on tasks not so much on what is to be done but how.
- Individuals bring ideas of their own to the table regularly.
- Minor mistakes are tolerated and treated as opportunities to learn
Given the above, empowerment is not:
- Treating empowerment as just a chance to delegate workload to others.
- Abrogating or permitting people to do what they like.
- Delegating work that a leader doesn’t like or doesn’t want to do.
- Excluding one individual on the team at the expense of another.
- Loading up the most competent or able individuals on the team.
Servant leadership as a route to greater empowerment
One successful way in which leaders can start to empower people is to progressively seek to become a “servant-leader”, or someone who offers time and resources when individuals need to perform tasks and projects and when goals need to be met. Servant leaders understand that their role is to facilitate the success of those they lead mainly by performing a support and advice-giving role.
The author Robert Greenleaf, who coined the term servant-leader, explains that servant leadership “begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” In other words, individuals are unlikely to follow a leader who is not only humble but also concerned about their capacity to do a job and the success they are likely to achieve. Hence, when you act as a servant-leader, people on the team:
- Won’t wait for their leader to prescribe exactly how a task is to be performed.
- Will look to do things differently and take more reasonable risks.
- Will be more aligned with the overall organisation’s values in their actions, because this can be openly discussed as each task or project is assigned.
- Will feel more appreciated and committed to give of their best.
So what practical things can leaders do?
There are many practical steps that leaders can take to empower people on their teams. Here are just a few:
- Create a climate of sincerity and trust. Demonstrate your commitment to individuals by trusting them to perform a task or project to a high standard.
- Encourage individuals to collaborate more at peer level.
- Focus on what needs to be done (overall strategy and targets) but let individuals provide ideas on how this is to be achieved.
- Be consistent with your promises to give people room or freedom to act (no secret spying!).
- Quietly learn from any mistakes made and celebrate empowerment successes when they occur.
Ultimately, when you empower people more often, individuals naturally end up liking their jobs a lot more. An empowering leadership approach may therefore be the best antidote to any existing signs of stress or dissatisfaction, poor team relationships, confusion about targets, an active and negative “grapevine” and lots of unhelpful organisational politics.
Of course, the journey to a fully empowered climate is never finished; it’s a constant and often rewarding process for any leader who can learn how to do it well and pursue a path that leads to great workplace satisfaction.