Empowering Your Teams

The virtues of high-performing teams are well documented.  They are 50% more productive.  They are more creative, and members are 76% more likely to be engaged.

Gallup studies of organizational performance find that companies with highly engaged employees are twice as likely to be successful.  Specific performance metrics include:

  • 17% increase in productivity,
  • 10% increase in customer satisfaction ratings, and
  • 21% increase in profitability.

Empowered employees are the foundation of high-performing organizations.  They are encouraged to be innovative and creative, to identify solutions, and deliver results.

Creating an empowered culture sounds great and requires tangible actions.  As my career progressed from managing small teams to leading large organizations, I learned the importance of empowerment.  Not only did it inspire people to achieve their potential, but it also liberated me from worrying about or interfering in the details of peoples’ work.

What is Empowerment?

Empowerment is defined as the “authority or power given to someone to do something.”  So, what does that mean?

For employees, that means:

  • Having autonomy over how they work and without being micromanaged,
  • Being encouraged to be innovative and take thoughtful risks without fear, and
  • Feeling respected and that their opinions count.

Managers create empowerment by:

  • Setting clear objectives and allow employees to decide how to achieve them,
  • Assuming best intentions and treat mistakes as learning opportunities,
  • Promoting an environment where diversity is encouraged and promoted, and
  • Protecting your employees and teams from adverse external forces.

A Shift in Culture

Management theory was born at the dawn of the 20th century.  Frederick Winslow Taylor symbolized this philosophy where people were simply an input to production that needed to be optimized.  Henry Ford mastered these ideas and reduced the time to build a Model-T from 12.5 hours to just over 90 minutes.

In this industrial model, managers were educated and held power.  Employees were semi-skilled and treated as a tool of production.  While the merits of this model are debatable, it influenced management philosophy.

By the 1950s, there was a shift in the workforce.  Peter Drucker described knowledge workers, who use analytic thinking to do their jobs.  In this paradigm, managers do not need to control their employees but should:

  • Set objectives,
  • Motivate and communicate, and
  • Develop their teams.

In the 1990s, traditional companies were challenged by start-ups.  To remain competitive, they created product development teams that were encouraged to break standard corporate practices to develop bold, new products. These new norms became one of the foundational underpinnings for Scrum—a leading Agile methodology.

Set Clear Objectives

Managers establish clear objectives and outcomes in empowered organizations.  Then, they let individuals and teams figure out the solution.   This shift in the power-dynamic is critical because it gives employees autonomy over their work.

For managers, defining the objective—the what and why without describing the how is often challenging.  Setting goals requires creative thinking, which expends more brain energy.  Providing context creates understanding and boundaries while preserving the latitude to find a path and adjust as necessary.

Empowered and imaginative employees will meet or surpass the objective when allowed to find the solution.  I was always amazed at the diversity of options generated by my teams when I set expectations without prescribing how to achieve them.

When I managed a large organization, I set a target for my dozen managers to reduce our costs by 10%.  I thought that was an aggressive goal.  I let each manager define their strategy, and they delivered a 40% cost savings!

Assume Best Intentions

Mistakes happen.  By definition, mistakes are unintended or unexpected events.  People do not come to work thinking, “How am I going to screw up today?”

When people are punished for errors, we create an environment of fear.  People will not be inclined to be creative, bold, or decisive.  They will not take the initiative.  Good ideas and better ways of working will not be surfaced.

I have seen the adverse impact of a culture where mistakes were punished and bad ideas were ridiculed.  There was nothing to be gained by being innovative or challenging the norm.  Employees learned it was best to be quiet, and the organizations stagnated.

Managers and team members should assume best intentions.  Meaning, we believe that our colleagues made the best decision they could at that time.  Mistakes are unintended consequences that create a learning opportunity.

Creating a learning opportunity requires active engagement.  The U.S. Army has developed the After Action Review as a powerful tool to improve its fighting performance.  The review creates a feedback cycle that encourages a critical and constructive inspection of the operation to promote learning and improvement.

In an enterprise environment, asking the following questions will foster a thoughtful review of events:

  • What was the goal or objective?
  • What explicit or implicit assumptions were made? Were the assumptions validated?
  • What data was used to support the decision? In retrospect, was it helpful?
  • Given what we now know, what options were not explored? Which one might have led to a better outcome?

A colleague who worked in the new product development group for a technology company recounted how mistakes were seen as teachable moments.  The company was a disrupter, and the leadership recognized the importance of taking risks and experimenting to exploit unseen opportunities.

Many products were duds and did not meet sales expectations, but others were wildly successful.  The product development team needed to be bold.  If they were timid, the company would have never made it past infancy.

Be the Change

Leaders, at all levels in an organization, create the culture for their teams.  Managers must first empower themselves to be the change they want to see before empowering their teams.  This is the definition of leading by example.

I was inspired by a manager who created an innovative and empowered environment in a highly structured and risk-averse organization.  He was an anomaly who delivered outsized results and drew admiration from his colleagues and teams.

Research shows that an employee’s relationship with their direct manager accounts for 70% of their engagement with the enterprise.  Great managers motivate with a compelling vision, create their right culture, and build trusting relationships.

Traditional change management theory suggests that organizational change needs to be driven by senior leadership.  I have often heard line- and middle-managers lament that they are waiting for the executives to initiate change.  I disagree.

All managers have the power to create an empowered culture in the absence of broader organizational efforts.  I have trusted my team and their best judgment, even while I was micro-managed.  Withstanding the pressure to conform to the organization’s culture required effort and the conviction that I was doing the right thing.

© 2021, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

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