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Empowering a team is essential for driving success, but leaders may be hesitant to delegate authority because they fear the consequences of giving up control. They may worry their team members will make mistakes or decisions not aligned with the overall goals of the organization. Yet empowerment is not about micromanaging or controlling every aspect of a team’s work. When supervisors and managers give teams autonomy and trust, they create a positive work environment where individuals feel a sense of ownership and engagement among their peers.
The difference between an individual contributor and a supervisor or manager is the ability to maximize the whole. The responsibility of these leaders is to leverage an individual’s skills, knowledge, and creativity toward achieving collective goals. Here’s how they can start:
1. Provide clear strategic direction
The biggest obstacle to team empowerment is the failure of leaders to enable people to make their own decisions — most often, because they did not provide the strategic blueprint to guide those decisions. Even I can occasionally be guilty of this. When our company hits a point of change, I can be inclined to require the escalation of a decision up to me. Sometimes, that is necessary, but even after making that decision, I still need to remember to let go again and re-establish the blueprint so everyone else will be empowered to make that decision moving forward.
At my company today, we talk about how to make decisions as close to the customer as possible so no one has to say, “I’ll have to talk to my manager about that first.” If we deviate from our strategic direction, we must step back and refresh the blueprint.
At one of my previous companies, the product lines were more scripted. People could authorize adjustments depending on their level within the team. We had a distributor level, a reseller level, and an end-user level, each with different pricing. A vice president could go down three levels, a director could go down two levels, and a manager could go down one without authorization.
Because it was so defined, individuals were empowered to make a decision without giving away the farm. Establishing control levels like this allows team leaders to provide empowerment without full risk, while maintaining trust in people’s capacity to learn on the job.
2. Nurture leadership and compensate risk-takers
Leaders and managers can play a big role in fostering the growth of individual contributors who want to develop their careers. In the early days of the organization, as we were figuring out our strategic direction, we kept our structure extremely flat. One individual contributor in the sales department showed interest in learning beyond his position, so I nurtured him into Head of Sales, then Head of Product Management, and now, Chief Operating Officer.
Today, I call him my business partner. It did not happen overnight, but I trusted and empowered him to grow one step at a time into leading the organization.
Part of empowering a team is recognizing those capable of working with greater responsibility and those who might not be comfortable with the level of risk involved. It can also mean compensating high-performers at the level of their contribution if they do not want to rise to another level.
In my first job with a software company, I worked with a colleague who was a phenomenal technical writer and was comfortable remaining in that role. The head of the department recognized his skill, too, and changed the pay structure so individuals could be paid at a level similar to a manager or above because of the superior level of their work.
Apart from those cases, compensation should be commensurate with the risk-taking and responsibility people are willing to accept. Identifying the right team members to empower is doing risk-reward well: It incentivizes people to take ownership of their work and can have a significant impact on the bottom line.
3. Empower small decisions and stay nimble
To make all these adjustments is like steering the rudder of a sailboat. The more nimbly we can adjust to the input of the wind and waves, the better our chances of getting to the other side of the lake faster than anyone else. But if we try to make huge changes, like a 90-degree turn, the sailboat will go completely off course. Most empowerment success cases are small, individual actions, so we only need to course-correct within a few degrees of our current position.
Trusting people to make decisions will always come with risk. We might find ourselves selling a product at a price point far lower than necessary to win a business. Salespeople who decided they did not need a sales or applications engineer to double-check their designs on a training program later met with problems in the field. In these cases, empowering an individual could cost a lot of money.
So, the job of managers and supervisors is to minimize the impact of the decisions people might make and learn from them at the next stage. Make sure those problems are visible to others in a way that identifies what went wrong rather than singles out the person who made the decision. When a manager can separate the action from the person, everyone will feel more comfortable learning from mistakes.
The rewards of empowerment outweigh the risks
For empowerment to be effective, managers and supervisors should create an environment where team members feel comfortable and trusted. Data is power. Run analyses to know where the wrong decisions are being made.
Either someone needs more training, or they are being asked to decide the wrong level. Identify which is the case and make a plan to solve the problem and keep them empowered. It is worth the investment because empowering teams is not only beneficial for individual growth and development but also contributes to the bottom line of the organization.