Empowerment, Trust and Letting Go

“I’ve empowered my employees, but nothing has changed,” the executive whined with a frustrated tone reminiscent of an eleven year old tween.

I had to smile at the common refrain that often plagues leaders with genuine desire to empower their employees.  This executive understood the benefits of an engaged, empowered and fully maximized workforce.  That wasn’t the issue.  The “why” of empowerment was firmly planted in the frustrated psyche of the executive.  The stumbling block was the “how” to make it happen.  More pointedly, it was the “how” and the “what” that was missing – the “what will it cost” to enable a change in employee behavior.

There is absolute truth in the oft repeated leadership refrain that empowerment is a two-lane highway.  It does, indeed, require both actions by leadership and corresponding reaction by employees – in the form of courage, initiative and willingness to take accountability for actions.  Dual responsibility is a requisite requirement.  Management is correct about that.  And yet, in the absence of an empowerment culture, the fingers end up pointing both ways – employees emphatically blaming leadership, and leaders defensively jabbing digits back toward the masses.  In those moments, it’s helpful to remember the grade school teaching – when you point toward someone else, there are three fingers on your hand pointing back at you.

So, if both employees and leaders are both to blame for failed empowerment, how can we move beyond this impasse?  Is it realistic to expect all involved parties to “pony up” to their responsibility, take the mature route, shake hands and happily skip off together into the lollipop land of empowered bliss?  Hardly.  Unfortunately, we all know this is rarely how issues are resolved in any organization.  Politics, hierarchical insecurities and egos pose the most impressive barriers to adult problem solving.

My coaching to leaders in cases like this is to be brutally honest.  Your employees may need to step up and take more accountability for making decisions, but at the root of it all, there is something getting in their way.  And that thing is almost always trust (or lack thereof).

“But my employees trust me…” the leader implores, defensiveness shooting sky-high at the mere suggestion.

In any relationship, trust is the foundation on which any true strength and progress are built.  But trust is rarely a black or white issue.  While a level of trust does typically exist between leader and follower, affirming the leader’s sophomoric entreaties, diagnosing the fear and lingering distrust beneath the surface is often the only way to instill true empowerment.  And the fear and distrust is usually strongest within the leader himself – a fear of letting go and of believing in the abilities and capabilities of his staff.  This entails accepting primary accountability for guiding the results of staff actions, not the means by which those actions are achieved.

Focus on allowing employees decision making authority for managing the details of their work, reserving for oneself only those decisions that require strategic coordination between higher-level business units and strategies.  If results fall short initially, coach to any shortcomings, ensuring criticisms are founded in quality reasoning, and not merely stylistic differences.  Accept that employee solutions may differ slightly from your own, and keep your hands (and comments) out of their sandbox.

The leader who can do these things is the leader of a truly productive and innovative team.  The results will astound, and ultimately, the leader will be given credit for more than simply managing a team, but actually leading one.

So, don’t just think you’ve empowered your employees.  If the behaviors don’t match your desired state of empowerment, reexamine your role in building trust levels.  The results will astound.  Morale and engagement will increase, and productivity will soar.  Give it a try!

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