How can we grow empowered leaders?

Steve Holliday looks at three helpful tools in creating a culture of empowerment for team leaders.

Most organisations recognise that they need to do more to empower their people to become the best they can be, more of the time. To fully realise their talent and potential – and to really take the levels of freedom, authority and permission being offered to them – they must be trusted to actually do so.

Any employee who’s ever felt micro-managed and somehow contained, knows they will never perform to the best of their abilities, and the experience will be a rough one. This presents an interesting paradox at play in many organisations, as those very same senior leaders that want to empower their teams are often part of the problem, inadvertently disempowering people.

Managers have a tricky line to walk, as they are often depicted by others as needing to be the heroes who have all the answers, tell us what to do next and keep us safe. Meanwhile, they are invested with all the responsibility for our wellbeing, whilst employees are simultaneously demanding to be freed, liberated, and given full power to realise their potential.

There must be a real shift from the current parent/child relationship, to an adult/adult one.

So can leadership development help end micro-management? Only if it helps senior management step back and trust their teams, whilst guiding staff to fully step forward and take the freedom and power they are offered. There must be a real shift from the current parent/child relationship, to an adult/adult one.

To achieve a fully empowered workforce and reap the rewards, organisations must explore ways to engage each other. There are a few tools proven to help this process:

Action learning groups, with deep leadership coaching

A central piece of any organisational change is the need to work on understanding our own leadership engagement style and how it impacts on those around us.

Action learning groups provide a safe, powerful container to explore this territory, using daily business challenges as the heart of the work. The form appears simple – small groups of people, working together on developing self-awareness through coaching and rigorous self-reflection, guided by a coach or supervisor.

This is incredibly important grounding work, and can be very ’empowering’ as an experience.

Work starts at a personal level, and also expands into exploring the nature and quality of engagements between people at work. This can go beyond immediate teams to different departments, people of different grades and job roles, and even external partners.

Maintaining practice – using powerful 3s

To underpin larger group work, even deeper insight can be gained using small groups of three, or “triad work”. This can also be made up of both peers and colleagues of mixed seniority and geography.

Whether as a breakout session at a whole group gathering, or a smaller follow-up gathering between bigger group workshops as a way of  ‘checking in’ on progress and further coaching each other, the intent is to help leaders develop the capacity for self-coaching.

These groups aim to coach and mentor each other, whilst working to solve business challenges and opportunities. They achieve this by working on their own behaviour, paying attention to how empowered they are themselves, as well as how they empower others – both in their day jobs and in the triad.

Action learning groups provide a safe, powerful container to explore this territory, using daily business challenges as the heart of the work.

There is something special about a triad. When three people come together with time set aside specifically to work on themselves and each other, the dialogue is incredibly valuable, and the experience empowering.

Deeper still – being present, and actively listening

Mismatch between the ‘intention to empower others and be empowered ourselves’ vs the ‘reality of how we do that’ is often down to a specific trap we fall into. Being ‘present’ is the way out of it. In the busy workplace, the ‘transactions’ dominate. The stuff, the to-do-lists, the actions – all take our attention as we go into the ‘zone’ to get stuff done.

Have you ever caught yourself answering emails whilst on a conference call, or scanning an overflowing inbox during a meeting? Have you ever just told everyone what to do, or done it yourself, as it’s just quicker and more efficient to do that?

This may seem helpful at the time, but in fact you are not present, and certainly not listening actively. This ‘relational’ practice is at the heart of many of the hundreds of stories shared about when people feel most empowered, most trusted, most supported to be their best.

To further develop this ideal culture you must develop the skills at ‘being present’ and ‘actively listening’ more regularly. Then, people really feel that you ‘see them’ and ‘hear them’ in the moment, and are not distracted, or just giving orders.

As voice coach, author and director Patsy Rodenburg said, “Having the right to speak, always starts with actively listening” (Rodenburg, 2015). The key word here is ‘active’: to be present in the moment, through our body, posture, and breathing, and the quality of our voice.

The quality of human presence is what many stories of true empowerment have in common.


About the author

Steve Holliday is a director at Lacerta Consulting.


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