As a parent, one thing I've learned is the importance of empowerment. Unless you want your kids to rely on you forever--and worse yet, never move out--you have to give them the tools they need to survive and then let go. In my professional experience, I've learned those same lessons also apply to the workplace.
Organizations that empower their people are more successful than those that don't. And this empowering process begins with strong leaders who are willing to let go of total power and trust their people. As Tom Ridge put it, "Each person on a team is an extension of your leadership; if they feel empowered by you, they will magnify your power to lead." Or Bill Gates: "As we look into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others." Most leaders hear quotes like these and agree, and yet many still struggle to empower their people. Why?
The struggle to empower others
It's perfectly natural to get to the top of the business ladder and be confident in your ability to "get the job done." Unfortunately, that's even the case when the job you're describing is someone else's--someone you hired. It's not always that you don't trust employees, but...you know, you're really good at getting stuff done. This self-confidence is often why so many business leaders struggle to empower employees. And while it may seem harmless enough, it's actually quite harmful.
Business leaders who do everything for their people (including try to solve their problems) help their team develop learned helplessness. Worse than micromanagement, learned helplessness creates both bottlenecks and inefficiencies, and it also stifles growth. Put another way, it's worse than the parent who does everything for their kids; it's the parent who does everything for their kids and teaches the kids they can't do it.
Whether the struggle to empower others comes from a lack of trust or overripe self-confidence, it doesn't have to be some insurmountable challenge. In fact, the way to empower your people is incredibly simple. Easy? Of course not. But yes, simple.
Five incredibly simple habits
A couple disclaimers: Business leaders don't have a monopoly on the struggle to empower others. Anyone in a relationship can probably identify with this struggle. After all, empowering is just another way of letting go of power (and that's never easy).
Again, these aren't easy, but they don't require a lot of extra work. In fact, sometimes they require far less work on your part.
1. Provide clear expectations. Your picture of empowerment needs to match that of your people. Be specific in how they are empowered and what, exactly, that means they have authority to do. This usually begins when somebody joins your organization, but the process of giving employees a clear picture of their roles should be regularly communicated to avoid confusion.
When you put somebody in charge of a project, give clear direction and make sure he or she knows what needs to be achieved and for whom. Make sure everyone has clarity on your mission, vision, and goals. After all the hard work done up front of architecting and communicating the plan, you should then trust your people to go and execute.
2. Listen. When you follow up to see how things are coming along, ask questions and be prepared to listen. Really listen. Give others control of the conversation long enough to accurately understand what they need (and long enough for them to figure out what they need from you, if anything). This can be very hard.
As Stephen Covey put it, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." When you jump to conclusions and assume you know what's going on (and how to fix a problem), you don't get to the root of the problem. And you take away somebody's ability to solve challenges on their own.
3. Listen some more. A wise man once told me, "Be a teacher, not a teller." Even after you've listened long enough to have a good handle on what is going on, hold back the urge to jump in and "take care of it." Avoid falling into the Karpman Drama Triangle by making yourself the rescuer (while creating victims and persecutors). As fun as it may seem to be the rescuer, to swoop in and solve a problem, it's rarely the effective route to take--especially if your goal is to empower.
Even after you've listened long enough to get the full picture, and before you jump to giving your solution or recommendation, ask, "How can I help?" Make others give you clear requests, and make sure you only do for them what they cannot otherwise do for themselves. In the long run, you'll be much happier that you did.
4. Trust completely. It all comes back to having the right team. If you have the right people, and if you've explained to them exactly what you need them to do, trust them. Believe in them. Treat them like a friend because you are their friend. By doing so, you will allow them to become the best version of themselves. Quirks and eccentricities make people who they are. And embracing original, unique, and diverse influences helps everyone learn and grow.
Unless something about an employee directly conflicts with an ironclad company rule or value, just embrace your employees as they are. This doesn't mean you accept incorrect behaviors, attitudes, or toxicity to the culture. But you will need to accept differences to see growth. And as employees become their best selves, reward them for their efforts to ensure they continue to get better.
5. Get out of the way. In the end, you do not empower people. You merely allow the authority and voice already within somebody to come out. There's no magic key or ancient ritual to empower others. Just give them the tools they need, show some confidence in them, and watch them grow.
And during a crisis, do not revert to a top-down approach. Let those closest to the ground floor--and most aware of the situation--lead the efforts. Offer to help give resources, feedback, and a willing ear, but never just assume that you can do their job better than they can. In fact, if you've done your job as a leader, your people will prove you cannot.
Truly empowering your people means you let them do the work you hired them to do. But you need the right people, you need to communicate clearly, and then you need to let go.