August 5, 2015

Empowerment – A Secret to Self-Organizing Teams

Written by Cindy Bloomer

I’m often asked how to create empowered teams.  The question usually includes the exclamation “I told them they’re empowered, but they’re not acting like it”, and an expectation that I’ll be able to provide a successful formula or recipe that can be replicated.  Well, I don’t have a specific formula, but here are some important concepts I’ve learned.

Empowerment is a two-way street
It’s not enough to anoint people or teams as “empowered”, they need an environment that is congruent with empowerment, and they have to accept the mantle of being empowered.

Providing an empowering environment is the responsibility of leadership, top-to-bottom in an organization; accepting the mantle of empowerment is the responsibility of each individual and team.

As individual team-members go, so goes the team
Even in exactly the same environment, different teams will likely exhibit different levels of empowerment, because each individual team members’ level of acceptance is different.  Personal style, culture, history, experience, values, comfort with ambiguity, and risk tolerance all affect an individual’s willingness to “be empowered”, and the extent to which they exercise that empowerment.

While you and I will vary in how we embrace empowerment, we both need the same conditions to be met.  To feel and act empowered, we need:

Clarity – I am clear about what needs to be accomplished (intent), and why it’s important (value), even if the how is uncertain.  I understand the purpose and what success looks like.

Ability – I have the knowledge and skills to do it, even if I don’t have specific experience.

Agency – I have the authority to make decisions about how I do it.

Safety – I feel safe to do it. To make decisions and act; to fail so I can learn; to communicate honestly and openly.

Belief – I believe I can do it. I have self-confidence and self-efficacy.

Interest – I am interested in doing it.

Creating an Empowering Environment
Julian Rappaport, in “Studies of Empowerment” (1984) said “it is easy to define empowerment by its absence, but difficult to define in action as it takes on different forms in different people and contexts.”

Regardless of how it’s accomplished, successful empowering environments satisfy the conditions identified above, and actively encourage and support individuals to grow in these areas.  There are underlying themes that work from one organization to another, including:

  • Don’t solve people’s problems – help them learn how to solve their own
  • Change the language – thoughtfully replacing key phrases can have a huge impact
  • Truly believe in the good intent of others – people don’t set out to do the wrong thing
  • Make learning important – not training, although that’s a component, but learning by doing
  • Give permission to fail –we learn the most when we’re free to fail
  • Provide opportunities to succeed – it builds confidence
  • Decisions are choices, accept the consequences of yours – and show others how to do the same
  • Be curious – but don’t question, it erodes confidence
  • Become story tellers – stories inspire and provide context and clarity
  • Set reasonable boundaries – and help others learn to expand them to broaden their sphere of control
  • Expect honesty – not compliance
  • Walk your talk – be visible and show how it’s done
  • Help them learn to walk – challenge people to step outside their comfort zones, and support them

For a story of what Stephen R. Covey calls “the most empowering organization I’ve ever seen”, check out the book Turn This Ship Around by L. David Marquet.

I’d love to hear your thoughts….how do you help create a sense of empowerment?

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