4 steps to empowering your team

We talk a lot, these days, about empowering our teams.

That probably sounds like it’s a good thing — giving our people the authority to make decisions, to take initiative, and to guide the direction of the organization.

But, there may be a couple challenges with that:

  1. Some of us may feel uncomfortable giving up control.
  2. Some people may not be ready to be responsible and accountable for decisions and direction.

On top of that, you may have heard of an empowerment project going terribly wrong or maybe you’ve experienced it first hand and you can’t help but wonder – is it worth it?

Well, I’ll admit it, sometimes it isn’t easy.

But here at Padraig, we’ve had a chance to work with a lot of organizations and a lot more leaders and we’ve seen empowered teams make huge gains and achieve incredible things.

So, like most good things, it takes some investment, it takes a bit of effort, but if you make the investment, and you give the effort, the return on that investment can be enormous.

It’s about thinking about what “empowered” looks like to you — and what it doesn’t look like — and share that clearly with your team along with your expectations.

If you think empowering your team might be a good idea but you’re worried about some of the pitfalls and wonder what should you look out for – here are our 4 steps to an empowered team.

1. Paint the picture of what empowered success looks like

Clearly define the vision. What are the big-picture, longer term goals of the organization or your part of the organization? Having the vision clearly defined allows us to keep that in mind as a team when we’re making day-to-day decisions. If we all have our eyes on the same destination, we can stay relatively well aligned.

Talk about your values. Talking about vision and goals is essential, but just as much, your team needs to know the ground rules and the context that they’re working in. If the goal is to sell 10,000 units this year and the sales team is off to the races securing orders from clients while the production team is caught up on a design flaw, we have a problem.

Perhaps one of our values is that we communicate regularly, before getting too far along the path. Or, may one of our values is that we work as a team and help each other overcome hurdles. Or maybe it’s a simple as agreeing that the goal is 10,000 units sold to exceptionally happy customers. Either way, we want to be clear to the sales team that closing deals on 10,000 units in isolation from production or shipping actually didn’t achieve the goal the way it needed to be achieved. We all had to work together.

2. Provide the tools

Clearly define roles. People who don’t know what they’re supposed to do aren’t going to do it well. If roles are clearly defined, the team knows the parameters within which they can move freely.

Customize the tools to each individual. As you define the role for each person, ask questions and pay attention to how they analyze information and make decisions. Are they analytical, or driven by emotion? Are they self-aware? Are they goal-focused? Do they see opportunities or tend to notice the risks?

Knowing how each person sees the world will help you find the right person to handle and empower with a specific responsibility.

Provide Context. Lots of it, and often — help people to see the bigger picture and the greater implications will empower them to make decisions which consider more than they have previously had to consider.

3. Demonstrate Trust

Give them the opportunity to make decisions, and don’t second guess them. A lot of us as leaders are willing to allow our team members to make decisions, but want to step in as soon as we see something done differently than we would do. Try to take your hands off the steering wheel while observing where they take us.  You can (and should) still build in milestone checkpoints along the way.

Assign responsibility for key projects from start to finish. Allowing someone to make decisions means allowing them to own some projects and feel the responsibility of completing that project.

Appreciate their efforts. This is the one some of us often forget. I know I do. I tend to keep pushing when folks are doing well with new tasks, without stopping to show my gratitude. But, encouragement can go the furthest in creating team chemistry, longevity, and commitment.

Recognize people in ways they appreciate — for some that will mean recognition in group meetings, for some a sincere and heartfelt thank you face-to-face, privately. In either case, be specific. What is it, specifically, that you are recognizing and acknowledging?

Encourage Safe Failure. Many employees, and certainly many organizational cultures, are risk-adverse. If they work in an environment where the boss is always correcting them before they have a chance to execute, they will constantly look for approval before taking action or, worse, simply avoid any new or dynamic action.

Present your team members with opportunities to try new things in a way that doesn’t put the organization in danger. And, this may be the hardest part, when failures occur — remind yourself this is a learning opportunity that will make this employee even more valuable going forward. That is, if you review and help them learn what went wrong, and why.

4. Model the Behaviour

Ask questions… often. Your organization’s future leaders need to understand that great conversations lead to great decisions. Meaningful, purposeful dialogue not only develops skills and knowledge but also good decision-making and sound judgment. As the leader, ask thoughtful, curiosity-driven questions to get the conversation started.

Listen with intent. People feel valued when they’re heard and when they feel valued, they’re more confident. You’re asking them to take on more responsibility and accountability so provide the opportunity for them to engage you, to seek your counsel and to affirm their choices. More on that here.

Drive to solutions while talking about the bigger vision and values you’ve already shared, encourage your team to share their struggles and their challenges, AND encourage them to share their potential solutions.

One of my mentors used to insist on three solutions when we came to him with a problem. He would then help us choose and implement the best solution (which, interestingly, was sometimes a fourth option that combined elements of the three)!

Coach their thinking. Do you remember the best teachers you ever had? Chances are they were the toughest; they challenged you to question your assumptions, guided you to new ideas, encouraged you to consider other perspectives, and pushed you beyond the limitations you perceived for yourself.

Become that teacher.

By challenging your team members’ thinking and assumptions, you set the stage for their breakthrough moments.

Respect Their Boundaries. This is another one of those points where we need to remind ourselves of different behavioural types in the workplace. While you want to push your team members to embrace new experiences, and to push themselves beyond their comfort zone, you don’t want to shove them so far out of their comfort zone that it becomes a negative experience. If you’re ever unsure about an employee’s comfort level, don’t hesitate to check in and ask, and then coach them to help them decide whether they are pushing enough outside their comfort zone, or too much.

Coach’s Question

Do you use all four steps in empowering your team? What areas could you practice more of in your organization?