Empowerment has become a bit of a catchphrase — it’s used everywhere from self-help books, to corporate culture manuals, but what the huck is it?
If people on your team feel empowered, they:
- Have the context they need to take action
- Have the trust of the team (and their leader) to make decisions
- Have the tools and bandwidth they need to achieve their goals
I would liken being empowered to do anything to being empowered to do nothing. By that I mean that usually when someone is told they’re empowered to do anything, that’s often because the person directing them doesn’t understand the opportunity in front of them.
I often use a soccer field analogy (because I love sports, obvs) to describe empowerment — the captain has boundaries within which they’re allowed to make decisions, have a team they can direct, and a clear goal to aim for.
I would argue that empowerment is almost impossible to achieve without (at least some) clear boundaries and a clear goal.
As an aside, don’t let anyone ever tell you that boundaries or constraints limit possibility. There’s an entire field of study showing that quite the opposite is true. Understanding constraints is important, because not understanding and accounting for them up front can be frustrating, but as a general rule constraints drive creativity.
Here’s an example. Let’s say my goal is to reduce churn at my company.
First, I need a clear goal:
- By how much should I aim to reduce churn?
- How will we measure this? Over what time period?
- Can we properly attribute my efforts to that change?
- Will we have a control group to measure against?
Next, my team:
- What kinds of skills will my team members possess?
- Will I have access to a copywriter, designer, videographer?
- Will the team be committing their full time to this goal?
- Is there everyone on the team who is needed to make decisions?
- Is there anyone not on the team whose role currently overlaps with our work?
And finally, my boundaries:
- Which channels can we use in the pursuit of our goal?
- Eg. messaging, blog/content, social, etc
- What is the timeframe we have to execute?
- Are there any considerations around company values?
- Eg. tactics we wouldn’t ever use
- Is there a budget?
Finally, I need to understand how much involvement my leader wants in this project. Ideally, we can set up some clear check-in points throughout the process and assign areas I can lean on my leader’s expertise.
The yang to empowerment’s yin is accountability.
People need to feel like the actions they take, and the decisions they make, are important and valuable to their team.
There are a few things people need so that they feel like their decisions matter:
1. There is follow-up on the outcome (good or bad)
People need to understand the real consequences of their decisions. It will encourage them to dig deeper into a problem, share their context, and ultimately make better decisions. Also, when things go awry, it’ll help them learn actionable things they can do to make better decisions next time.
Understanding who is ultimately accountable also helps people understand how much they need to invest in a decision, and having clear accountability empowers the decision maker.
2. Their decisions are supported
If someone’s decisions are being consistently overridden you have an empowerment issue. It’s likely not clear what the boundaries are for the decision maker, or their leader is hesitant for some reason to let them proceed. A solution can be as simple as setting clear check-in points, so the leader is able to give feedback, or can be more difficult when there’s a serious lack of trust.
There are some useful frameworks that can help support empowerment and accountability which I’ll dig into soon.
This post is part of series on Actionable Lessons From a High-Growth Startup »