There’s a lot of talk about the unique challenges today’s leaders face—things like how to provide the right kind of leadership to manage remote teams, how to use technology to keep people engaged, how to cope with the sudden loss of numbers of good people due to the Great Resignation, and so many more.
But one leadership challenge that has been around for decades and continues to be relevant is how to create a culture of empowerment in an organization. This challenge can be difficult and complex to implement—but the benefits are enormous for everyone involved. Most successful companies have found that an empowered workforce generates positive results and relationships that are simply not possible with a traditional hierarchy dominated by “I say. You do.” leaders. People want to be actively involved in their jobs and people are drawn to organizations with an empowerment culture.
Misunderstandings About Empowerment
When making the shift to empowerment, leaders often need to fight a battle against misconceptions surrounding effective empowerment. Managers who are not familiar with the concept may fear they will have to relinquish all control and authority. Individual contributors can also get the wrong idea, imagining they will have free rein to do as they please.
A culture of empowerment requires greater accountability from people than does a traditional hierarchical culture. A culture of empowerment also requires greater responsiveness from leaders.
The Three Keys to Empowerment
In our book Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute, Alan Randolph, John P. Carlos, and I outline three keys organizational leaders must use to guide their company’s transition to a culture of empowerment.
- The First Key: Share Information with Everyone. Giving people information they need, even if it is privileged and sensitive such as business plans and strategies, enables them to make good business decisions. Providing people with the facts they need communicates trust and provides a sense of being involved in the organization’s success. When people can better understand the big picture, they can appreciate how their contribution and behavior impacts other aspects of the organization. I think this phrase says it all: “People without accurate information cannot act responsibly; people with accurate information feel compelled to act responsibly.”
- The Second Key: Create Autonomy through Boundaries. When hearing this line for the first time, people are confused. How can someone be autonomous if they have boundaries? The answer is simple. Picture a river winding through the countryside. The river flows easily even though there are banks on both sides. The banks are there to guide the river to its ultimate destination: the sea or the ocean. Without boundaries, that river would be a big puddle.
Empowerment works in a similar way. Boundaries tell people where they can be autonomous and responsible based on their skill level. For example, in an empowerment culture, someone who lacks the skills to set a budget may be given a boundary—a spending limit—before they are given more responsibility. They are also given training and skill development to enable greater autonomy. As the person gradually begins to assume responsibility for bigger financial decisions, their manager gradually pulls back on their own involvement in this area of decision making.
- The Third Key: Replace the Hierarchy with Self-Directed Individuals and Teams. As people learn to create autonomy by using shared information and boundaries, they must move away from dependence on the hierarchy. What replaces the clarity and support of the hierarchy? Self-directed individuals and highly skilled teams. The perceived division between “superior” and “subordinate” is no longer useful in business organizations. In fact, it works directly counter to success. Success today depends on individual and team effort—and managers must make room for this shift in responsibility.
Culture Shift Takes Time
The journey to empowerment requires managers and direct reports alike to challenge some of their most basic assumptions about how organizations should operate. People at all levels of the organization must master new skills and learn to trust self-directed individuals and teams as decision-making entities.
Empowerment is the creation of an organizational climate that releases the knowledge, experience, and motivation that reside in people. Shifting an organization’s culture is never a quick or easy process—but it is well worth the time and effort when the benefits for everyone—individuals, managers, top leaders, and the organization—are realized.
About the AuthorMore Content by Ken Blanchard