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Empowerment at work. How do we get from here to there?

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What is empowerment?

Creating an environment of empowerment

Be prepared

Work, empowerment, and underrepresented populations

Empowerment. It’s a word often said, a goal, a value, a hallmark of modern leadership. Yet it may be one of those leadership principles that can be misunderstood and difficult to put into action.

Before digging into the definition, if we consider the benefits attributed to empowerment, it’s easy to see why leaders talk about it so often. When a leader, or even better, an entire organization gets it right, great things can happen. The benefits of an empowered organization include:

Engaged employees – when team members have the freedom to define the “what” and “how” of their work they are more satisfied, more motivated and better aligned to common goals

Trust-based culture – Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s work on organizational empowerment shows when an organization has a culture of empowerment it leads to a greater level of trust in the leadership of the organization.

Reduced stress and burnout – Kanter’s work has also shown that an empowered environment can act as an antidote to high stress conditions which can lead to burnout.

Better performance – employees are often much more productive when they are in charge of (and accountable for) key decisions about their work

Improved work environment – a company full of empowered employees is far more likely to have a positive and joyful energy in their environment

Employee development – empowerment leads to new challenges which leads to growth, especially when leaders deploy as coaches to support employees working through new, sometimes uncomfortable learning curves.

What is empowerment?

So what is empowerment? The Oxford dictionary gives us two definitions that highlight why there may be some confusion about how to have an empowered team and culture.

Definition #1 – authority or power given to someone to do something

The implication of this definition is that an individual is not empowered until the power is given to them. Fred Kofman, executive coach, and author of Conscious Business described this view of empowerment as something to be conferred and withdrawn in his panel discussion at Wisdom 2.0 2014. As a hyperbolic example, he speaks as a leader: “I empower you! Because I am so powerful that I can. And if you displease me, I can disempower you!”

While empowerment can certainly begin with a leader extending power to others, a conditional, impermanent authority is not the empowerment that is meaningful in the workplace. Imagine a workplace where we show up in the morning and check our empowerment switch? Am I in the “empowered” state such that I can move forward with my work? Or am I in “disempowered” state, meaning I no longer have authority or power? This isn’t likely to be a motivating, energizing, high performance workplace.

Definition #2 - The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights

This definition implies that the ability to be empowered lies within each individual. Perhaps it is planted, like a seed, or perhaps the seed was there and just wanted encouragement and a bit of sunlight. In either case, once empowerment takes root, it exists in the individual and cannot be retracted by others.

What is needed is an environment where one can learn to be strong and confident. That alone isn’t enough, as each individual still must know their own authentic powers and gifts and empower themselves from within to unleash them. From within is important: that is where their true strengths and legitimacy live. These things are not conferred by others, although praise and recognition can be powerful in helping validate their quest to be self-empowered.

How does this look in real life? Consider Amalia’s situation. She was reasonably new in her role as a public relations manager, and because of the pandemic she had struggled to feel engaged in meaningful work. Then everything changed. The executive team wanted a fresh start with their PR strategy. Amalia was told that she had a blank sheet and to propose what she thought best. She asked for any guidelines or limitations and was told there are none … you are the expert! Amalia felt entirely empowered. She knew she had the skills and passion to put together a great plan. She threw herself into her work and presented her plan to her manager several weeks later.

What she heard next was completely disempowering. “Thank you for the great work but we’re going in a different direction. Here’s what I want our plan to be. I want you to present this to the executive team.” It was disempowering and demotivating. Amalia couldn’t imagine supporting the plan in front of the executives when she believed there was a better answer. She was no longer invested in the success of the plan.

But, empowerment takes many forms. Drawing from within, Amalia has re-empowered herself and is working towards her next goal … to find a company that will embrace her strengths and contributions.

So back to Kofman’s paradox. The paradox is that the leader’s power is to create an environment where team members feel safe to empower themselves, not to strip power away from team members when the mood strikes. Kofman states further that the heart of empowerment from a leadership perspective is to create a state where they meet people in their own individual legitimacy and uniqueness and work to release their true strengths and gifts.

Creating an environment of empowerment

With this as a backdrop, a leader’s role is to:

  • Create an empowering environment by fostering trust and respect. An empowering leader feels more like a wise teammate, one who creates the space where great work gets done. One key to this is to truly know your team members, their goals, their strengths, and their sense of purpose and work to support them.

  • Align individuals to organizational goals. An organization still has a “why” that drives the work and value of the organization.  Empowerment derives from having relevant information. A key to empowerment is to ensure that team members understand the goals of the organization, why their work matters, and how they will know if they have been successful.  t means coaching and guiding team members to unleash their strengths in service of organizational goals.

  • Redefine accountability. Individual accountability is at the core of empowerment, but how we define it is important.  Accountability here means a commitment to achieving organizational goals.  But it also allows for risk taking and new approaches that might lead to temporary setbacks and failures.  Accountability includes supporting team members in learning from these moments and refocusing their efforts towards the goals using this new knowledge and experience.

  • Practice self-awareness. A leader may discover she feels uncomfortable with releasing power to others.  Feelings like “what if they get it wrong?” or “I don’t feel like I’m adding any value” can be challenging for leaders who may then inadvertently act in a disempowering way.  An empowering leader knows themselves well and keeps tabs on their inner dialogue to guard against disempowering actions.

Be prepared

While the benefits of an empowered organization are quite clear, there can be  downsides.  Be aware of these potential pitfalls:

  • Clear direction. Relaxing control  and unleashing the creativity and curiosity of the team means the leader has to work harder than ever to provide guardrails, connect the dots between teams, and keep their eyes on the cohesiveness of the work.  Often the team goals can be achieved in multiple ways, which may or may not be compatible with each other. The leader’s job is to foster collaboration and ensure connection points are understood to achieve larger goals of the group or organization.
  • Appropriate skills and experience.  Empowerment will take people outside their comfort zone.  Stretching and leaving one’s comfort zone is necessary for learning and growth, but the leader needs to understand where each team member is at in their growth and experience and try to ensure they have the right level of support to grow without becoming completely lost or overwhelmed by the challenge.
  • Guardrails and reserved decisions. Empowerment is not carte blanche. If this isn’t communicated upfront, team members may feel like they are being disempowered when the boundaries are applied. Most organizations still have rules and boundaries, some imposed by regulations or external governance designed to ensure public safety, privacy and financial and operational controls. Examples are industry regulatory bodies, securities bodies, spending authorization limits, hiring/firing authority, etc.

    It is important to clearly communicate where these guardrails lie and what decisions are reserved. Often, teams can be empowered to act within a sphere of influence where they can reasonably expect to understand the goals and dynamics well enough to make effective decisions. The zone of empowerment might expand as the team or individual becomes more confident with decision-making authority.
  • Efficiency and effectiveness. Empowering employees may slow things in the short-term, especially if what they work on and how they do it has been very defined and controlled. There will inevitably be some rework and miscues when multiple people start making decisions rather than just one. Be prepared for bumps. The longer term benefits of empowered employees – positives like increased effectiveness, better innovation, and improved customer satisfaction – can’t happen if a leader insists on the same efficiency of the old rigid system.
  • Leadership clarity and confidence. Nothing exposes gaps in understanding and development needs like removing the structure of a leader (or process) dictating what to do. Removing the stick of authority also tests the quality and clarity of the leader. Managers will find themselves drawing on their ability to persuade, coach, and influence their teams. A manager may discover that they don’t know the answers to how things should fit together to guide their teams and will need humility to help the team anyway. 

Work, empowerment, and underrepresented populations

As discussed above, empowering the workforce has benefits for the organization. It may be obvious, but true empowerment also benefits the individual. Supported in the right environment, individuals exercising their empowerment have the opportunity to learn and grow faster, both personally and professionally. 

For these reasons, empowerment is an important part of the diversity and inclusion conversation. Empowerment of women or other under-represented groups is much the same as the discussion of general employee empowerment. One of the primary differences is that leaders need to be more thoughtful about what else might be needed to create an environment that supports empowerment for different populations.  

For example, for years a significant part of women’s empowerment in business has been about access to dependable, high-quality childcare. While many women in business don’t need childcare, and it is hardly just a woman’s issue, without childcare a significant percentage of women could not empower themselves in their careers, regardless of whether a manager was willing to yield more decision-making responsibility. Another way in which leaders have acted to create an environment of empowerment is to discourage the reimbursement of business expenses for networking or sales activities in venues that are gender-specific. 

Equally, leaders need to be aware of specific actions or messages they send that might tend to disempower or undermine the environment of empowerment for various groups. For example, if leaders are taking action to empower all employees, but every promotion cycle only one demographic or only alumni from one school are promoted, that would send a message that your empowerment only goes so far. Similarly, if only one type of plan or initiative is ever resourced, regardless of merit, that also undermines the environment of empowerment. 

A supportive environment means not making one group have to overcome unnecessary obstacles to develop themselves and their confidence and adding in additional support, such as mentors or coaches.

In summary, empowerment is an environment that leaders create and hold for their team members to live into their fullest potential and to own their own work. Leaders support the environment and set their people up for success by developing and coaching their employees, aligning them to organizational goals and by using failures as learning moments. Most importantly, leaders stay attuned to anything they do that might disempower people and adjust their approaches away from these habits. The empowerment is in the hands of the team members who must learn to trust themselves to stretch into their full potential and focus on their talents and gifts, joining them with those of others for the betterment of the team.