What it Really Means to “Empower” Your People

When was the last time you gave an assignment to one of your employees with the full confidence it would be executed without your active involvement? It just doesn’t get much better than that. Unfortunately, for many bosses, it’s a rare event. The key is empowerment – but it’s not as easy as you might think. Empowering your people takes time, focus and courage.

Let me share a few ways to get started.

Business Team Raised Fists

Give Responsibility with Authority

This may be the most accurate definition of empowerment – at least in the context of work. Yet I’m frequently surprised at how many managers miss this. Giving responsibility without authority is no different than dictating. That’s not to say it’s never appropriate, but employees who grow accustomed to taking orders won’t be prepared to step up in a pinch. Make it a practice to give authority, even when it means giving up some control. Constantly look for opportunities to delegate decisions regarding “how.”

Develop Their Competence

Gone are the days when the leader can be expected to provide the full extent of an employee’s training needs. In the knowledge age, employees are expected to bring certain skills and education with them. By the same token, the amount of skills employees need to remain “competent” in their role continues to expand. If you need your employees to be more capable tomorrow than they are today, you’ll need to make their ongoing development a priority (with a plan), regardless of where the development comes from.

Build the Team

In The Secret of Teams, Mark Miller describes high performance teams as those that can function without the active presence of the leader. Each team member knows his or her role, but is also keenly aware of the overarching goals of the team and closely connected with the other team members and external stakeholders. This obviously requires a lot more from both the leader and the team members. If your team can’t function without your direct involvement, you have room to grow in this area.

Build Their Confidence

Employees tend to receive more responsibility once the manager has confidence in them. This is another oversight. An employee’s self-confidence is at least as important, especially when undertaking a new challenge. Once the excitement of the new opportunity wears off, it can be quickly replaced with a sense of “conscious incompetence” – that is, an awareness of a lack of ability. The next phase is a critical period – and can be drastically influenced by positive and constructive feedback received from the manager.

Until your employees are confident in themselves, they won’t be able to make the next step.

Design the Infrastructure

“No matter how emphatically you tell me to [insert directive], it won’t magically make [insert infrastructure prerequisite] exist.”

Have you ever had to have this conversation with a superior? Ever been the guilty boss? True, employees can all be lazy or uncreative at times (that is to say, we’re all human). But issuing orders without understanding the infrastructure requirements is just as lazy. Empowering others means removing the barriers to their success, not ignoring them.

Empowering your employees requires a high degree of effort. Moreover, it won’t always turn out the way you hope. But no matter how proactive your employees are, they can’t completely empower themselves. Do yourself a favor as a manager of people. Go the extra mile. You’ll be the primary beneficiary.

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, speaker and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective with Leadership-in-a-Box.