In today´s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) and BANI (brittle, anxious, nonlinear, incomprehensible) world, our capacity to face challenges and respond effectively is key for sustained performance.
Among the key capabilities required to navigate in this context is empowerment.
I understand empowerment as: “The process of gaining freedom and power to do what you want or to control what happens to you”.
So, fostering a culture of empowerment is about helping others connect with their own possibility of making things happen and driving actions towards a vision.
We cannot “empower others”, but we can invite others to take ownership by creating the right container. People must step into their own power and ability to impact.
Empowerment accelerates growth and leads to faster decision-making. Agile organizations that enable innovation lead to satisfied clients with high-quality products and fulfilled employees.
Unlike autocratic leadership, a culture of empowerment encourages people to play to their strengths, grow and develop, and build self-confidence. It brings out the best in people in service of a higher purpose.
In a culture of empowerment:
- people work with autonomy and with a sense of purpose (goal-directed actions).
- day to day decisions with a clear intent and communication are pushed downwards to ensure faster decision-making and agility.
- decisions are based on facts vs opinions.
- accountability is the other side of the coin; with greater power comes greater responsibility.
- leaders promote high support and high delegation.
- trust is the cornerstone.
What are some of the common challenges in building a culture of empowerment?
- Fear of failure: One of the most common challenges is fear of failure. In an attempt to mitigate this fear, leaders begin to micromanage others and try to control them step by step to ensure the outcome they are hoping for. This kills empowerment and innovation and causes people to feel disengaged because their creativity is being suppressed.
- Lack of purpose and direction: not setting clear guardrails of the impact we are looking for will end up in people feeling lost and with a sense of meaninglessness at work. Connecting our work with a higher purpose fuels engagement and provides guidance as a headlight.
- Opposing to others’ voices and ideas: killing peoples’ ideas before they are even born is a fast segway to building an evasive and risk-averse culture with people laying low to avoid being pointed out or criticized.
- Watering down accountability: leaders are responsible for creating a high trust and high support environment to drive empowerment and high accountability in their team. They set the behavioral standards that are required in the organization, they live by example, and they demand others to do the same. Holding each other accountable in each other’s roles is crucial to building this type of culture.
In the words of Steve Jobs, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do, we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” We can build a culture of empowerment by aligning the leaders’ behaviors, systems, and symbols of the organization to reflect empowerment fully.
These are some essential steps we need to consider:
- Leading like a coach: Leaders don´t tell others what to do, they help people come up with their own answers. They support the team to open newly unthought-of possibilities and push them forward. They know their team members, are confident in what they can bring up together, and provide enough space for people to try new things, learn and become the best version of themselves. They establish clear boundaries and set the standards by role modeling.
- Creating a psychological safety and trusting environment: We all need to feel safe to fail, learn and continue improving. Bringing our whole selves to work is still a challenge in many organizations. If we are living in fear of criticism or retaliation, we will hold back, and not be able to push the limits of our creativity and help the organization find new heights.
- Developing feedback as a habit on your team: Having honest conversations on a recurrent basis about what has worked and what needs to be addressed in the future is needed to fuel empowerment and grow accountability. We can all easily fall into a pattern of not sharing feedback and allowing small resentments to grow over time. It takes some intentionality to do this, and a process, until it becomes a habit — it does not just happen on its own.
- Shifting into a player and growth mindset: Focusing on the things that we can control and approaching our challenges as an opportunity to continue learning and growing provides us with the energy and right attitude to sit in the driver’s seat of our life and own our power to change the things we need to.
- Acting courageously: Is about showing up and doing our best in congruency with our values and being detached from the potential outcome. It takes courage to take each of these steps. There is a reason that cultures of empowerment are few and far in between at times. It can be a difficult process to begin and to work through all the barriers, but has exponentially positive results.
Fear-based cultures constrain results by maintaining the status quo, causing people to feel to disconnected from the organization, and limiting innovation and engagement through command and control strategies. Victimhood arises, and people tend to blame others to survive and prevail in the system — while avoiding taking risks.
Instead, a culture of empowerment brings out the best in people by unlocking their potential, increasing performance, promoting doing things well, and establishing trusted relationships with others. It is a key lever to drive sustainable growth.