A number of times each game, Tom Brady calls a different play at the line of scrimmage than he did in the huddle. Even though the New England Patriots offensive coordinator called the original play, Brady has the latitude to make a different decision.
Brady makes those on-the-spot decisions based on a game plan put in place by the coaching staff during the prior week. He has latitude to operate within an overall framework and shared set of objectives. Patriots coaches trust him to make great decisions because he operates as an extension of the team.
NFL quarterbacks serve as a classic example of empowerment: giving people the authority and latitude to make smart decisions.
But why stop there; What if you took the next step? What if, instead of only empowering your employees to make difficult decisions, you also empowered them to take on difficult challenges?
Employee engagement and satisfaction would increase because engagement and satisfaction are largely based on independence and autonomy. People care more when something feels like it's "theirs."
People also care more when they feel they're allowed to find their own solutions. What's more satisfying: being told what to do, or figuring out what to do -- and then getting recognized for a job well done?
So how do you start empowering your employees to take on difficult challenges? Start with these four strategies:
1. Don't dictate solutions. Ask questions.
Feel free to state a problem or issue in detail, but limit your question to one sentence. "How can we increase throughput?" "How can we reduce errors?" "What do you think we should do?"
The key is to allow your employees to come up with their own thoughts, not react to yours. If you provide options right away, the focus is on those options -- and not on things you you haven't thought of. Make sure you stay open-ended. Do your best to avoid giving even a hint of what you think the might approach could be.
Remember, you already know what you know. So ask questions, and then just listen.
2. Focus on the end result.
While you want your employees to develop a great solution on their own, you must make sure they solve the actual problem. Unless you're very clear on the ultimate goal, sometimes a team will wind up solving a different problem. And while you're setting expectations...
3. Put guard rails in place.
Maybe you can only budget a limited amount of money. Maybe you don't want an individual or a team to spend more than eight to ten hours on the problem. Maybe the solution must take into account the impact on a downstream function.
Don't be afraid to set constraints. The fewer resources you have, the more you have to rely on creativity and ingenuity. (Besides: How many startups have unlimited resources?)
4. Always stay positive.
It's easy to spot the negatives. Most of us are great at identifying potential pitfalls and missteps.
Don't. Focus on giving positive feedback whenever you can. Focus on finding and emphasizing what is right.
Employees who aren't used to being empowered to tackle difficult challenges will naturally feel hesitant and uncertain. Will you really give them the latitude to develop their own solutions? Will you really give them the authority to make necessary changes?
Prove that you will. Be positive. Be supportive. Give constructive feedback without appearing to take over. If you see a problem, don't just propose a different solution. Ask questions. Ask why, or how. Or ask "What if?" questions.
In short, feel free to shape, but don't guide. Support, but don't direct. Help your employees feel comfortable about proposing new ways to get things done. And if an idea or approach isn't feasible, always take the time to explain why.
When you do -- and when you empower employees to tackle difficult challenges -- you help them feel a part of something bigger, and to feel not just valued as individuals, but as a key member of a real team.
These are some great ways I've learned to empower my team and lead. I don't use these tactics all the time -- sometimes you need to give more direction. But overall, to be a great leader in a fast-paced environment, follow these principles.