Through more than two decades of supporting some of the greatest and most challenging development processes in global business, our team has accumulated valuable experience and knowledge of the practical meaning of empowerment. The awareness of its importance has been growing everywhere we look. It is obvious that empowerment is an issue for all management teams we encounter. There are plenty of articles in business magazines, online forums and even a growing number of books published on the matter. All material is intended to support leaders to do a better job on empowerment. Real empowerment however requires a practical way of working that creates clarity and trust. It is about involving all receivers of empowerment in decision-making.
Management teams dedicate workshops to elaborate on how to convince themselves and their middle management to empower their people a lot more than they actually do. The trouble here is that talking about it is of course important but certainly not enough to succeed. Even handing out literature, inventing new slogans and conducting townhall meetings to remind everyone repeatedly does not give the desired effect. The ambition of supporting all co-workers to act more responsibly, self-driven, accountable, and proactively does however only remain wishful thinking if leadership is not significantly upgraded.
Let us for a while assume that all co-workers, including shop floor, admin and salespeople in all parts of an organization want to be an important part of their teams and companies. In other words: they want to make a difference. Some people do perhaps not give this impression of actually being interested in development, but if there is one thing, we at COD have learned from working with leaders and co-workers in more than 50 countries, this is exactly it. People do want to be involved and enabled to influence their work.
So how can leaders connect to this – sometimes invisible – potential of every person?
One of the first steps of real empowerment is to create full transparency of information, based on facts and data. This needs to be shared to secure that all receivers of empowerment understand the background, environment and challenges moving ahead. The leaders’ task is about being ahead of things, and replacing control of what has happened or not, by a proactive planning process both for the team and individually for each member. The planning is meant to be used to anticipate and prepare for future challenges and issues. It is about supporting the team to know what to do and how to act when solving the most important questions ahead. The key to this, is to support the team to identify its gaps, meaning important issues lacking solutions. Then it is necessary to translate those gaps into questions, which are to be put to all the people who should answer the questions and execute a solution. Making decisions based on everyone’s suggestions for how to solve the question needs to be supported by a solid method. Finally, the decisions need to be assigned to team members taking actions to execute the decided concrete steps. All this is done in an involving atmosphere where asking for volunteers guides the selection of responsible individuals or teams.
By approaching empowerment from a practical side, supporting teams and individuals to make decisions and execute them, leadership becomes a craftsmanship for daily work. It is about hands-on meetings to address the teams’ identified gaps. It is also about replacing slogans, posters and printed coffee cups by tangible actions. Team decisions need back-up by face to face conversations to secure that the decisions are fully understood and processed into individual actions.
Keeping track of the decisions, actions and their outcome is necessary in order to really build up a credible empowerment process. Therefore, a new leadership is required and – by the way – also demanded by an increasing number of leaders. Obviously, this has little to do with charisma or personality, it is something that leaders can exercise and learn. However, it requires that leaders replace their existing methods of command and control or KPI drive with a way of working based on involvement and trust.