Finding the right workplace culture where teams and individuals feel free to experiment and take action doesn’t necessarily come naturally to leaders. Dean Wheeler and Sherna Bhadresa examine four ways to empower people and get the most from their talents.
The higher up the ranks leaders are, the more they are held personally accountable for company performance. With targets to hit, problems to solve and issues to pre-empt – often in a climate of careful budgeting – leaders need to be able to harness help where they can.
This can be counter-intuitive when career progression for a leader has relied on finding the answers and delivering. It can also be counter-cultural in organisations where there is a command and control culture and/or where trust levels are low and where the culture is risk adverse.
However, empowering teams can be the smartest thing a leader does. Even smarter if replicated across an organisation, because the benefits of empowerment are not just to lighten the load on leaders, nor is it solely about improving employee engagement scores. When done well, empowering teams across the organisation has a huge positive impact on company performance.
Empowerment is about unlocking the potential of people at every level and, importantly, creating a safe space for them to experiment and take action. But, we know from experience that this can feel risky to those in charge. This is not about proposing a free-for-all with everybody chipping in and doing what they think best. Instead it is creating freedom within a framework.
It’s not easy, but it is worth it, and there are four key steps to achieving this.
1. Show not tell
Teams will not believe that you want their input if that expectation is not role modelled and reinforced from the very top. Equally, if the leadership are seen to be sitting back and asking those lower down the pay scale to solve all their issues, that will go down like a lead balloon.
If you are considering doing more to empower your teams, there is a probably a trigger for this. In which case, set the vision of what needs to be different and why. Acknowledge hard truths about the current culture – be honest.
Explain what measures you are taking to improve company performance and where you need input. Help your leaders at every level to visibly empower their teams and take an active interest in their success. Little by little you will start to create a momentum.
2. Create ‘freedom within a framework’
Create a climate where it is okay – indeed positively encouraged – for teams to go away and pro-actively make changes within their area of the business. Be clear what’s in scope and what isn’t. Make sure the team has access to experts within the organisation who can help them to problem solve.
Ring-fence a particular site or store/s to allow teams to fail fast, without affecting the whole business. This is about trusting the people closest to the work to know how to improve it. Strong leadership is key here: reverting to old ways will never move the business forward. Have reliable review mechanisms so that you can course correct as needed.
3. Equip your teams with the skills and knowledge they need
So, the teams understand what you are asking of them and why, they have a clear framework to operate in and they know that you trust them to fail fast. But empowerment without skills and knowledge is empowerment in name only.
Take time to understand what is really going on in the business. A team cannot act if they don’t understand the problem to solve. Gather data, but also stories to demonstrate what is going on. Listen. Feed back what you hear. This already begins to build ownership across the business because you’re not telling them what needs to change, you’re asking them.
Identify the key levers for change at a high level, identify cascaded priorities for teams to address, then encourage them to act within the framework you have agreed with them.
Train them in the skills they will need to collaborate and problem solve: skills ranging from running effective problem solving meetings, to allocating roles and responsibilities, to stakeholder management to visual management. They will also need to keep a track of the actions they are taking to influence the KPIs within their control – this becomes a key tool for sustainability. You may consider creating in-house coaches, designated experts in each function who can lend a hand to coach in these new ways of working building skills for the long term.
4. Share success and learning across the organisation
Success breeds success. Share stories of what teams have done and the impact that has had. Support them to share their successes in their own words: this could be done on the company online social networks, at team days, or specially organised ‘show ‘n’ tell’ fairs – whatever works best within your culture. The more teams learn from each other, the more others will want to get involved and the infectious energy of empowerment will spread. Be sure to also share learnings of what didn’t work and why: be authentic in your story telling and frame it constructively so the lessons learned are quickly absorbed.
For leaders, empowering their people does more than raise engagement and motivation. It allows the organisation to move faster than it has before and to achieve bigger, more sustainable financial results. Start creating a ‘movement’ of people who actively care about business performance and are empowered to take action to continuously improve what they do.