The empowerment challenge

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Written by Leigh Chattington and Richard Graham on 18 June 2014

One of the most challenging things that leaders wrestle with is achieving a balance between allowing their people autonomy and retaining control of the outputs they achieve. Years of research has proven the importance of autonomy as one of the key drivers of human motivation. We can all connect with the desire to be able to work in our own way, to feel accountable and trusted. There are many different motivators, but this is one that many leaders find difficult to crack. Why is this?

Perspective plays a role. What one views as freedom, others view as abandonment. Or what one views as structure, someone else experiences as micro-management. Accessing autonomy as a motivational driver is more difficult than most leaders think, but it is achievable, given the right amount of time and consideration.

The tale of a new leader

Here’s a story that some may relate to. A leader is promoted and is suddenly leading her peers. She believes that they are all competent and mature adults. She allows them to manage themselves and others the way they choose. The effect on the team varies. Some try to follow the leader’s example and in turn, allow their people freedom. Some focus on goals and metrics, whereas others throw their energy into building relationships. Others interpret this ‘hands off’ approach as acknowledgement that the strategies they’ve been using in the past are acceptable. The autonomy ‘green light’ builds their confidence and solidifies their views, even though some of these actually work in opposition to the leader’s philosophy. She sits back and surveys the scene. She can see that her people’s priorities are radically different and the picture of ‘what good looks like’ is like comparing Monet to Warhol. She had set out to motivate her team by giving them freedom and instead she sees confusion and conflict.

So what went wrong?

As human beings our drive to survive in ambiguous circumstances is remarkable. We’ll do whatever it takes to ‘stay afloat’, but this is hardly the platform for high engagement. A leader’s chances at winning the empowerment challenge are greatly increased if he or she takes the time to create the right environment. Below are three areas of focus that will help leaders to do this, along with some closed questions to use as a personal ‘reality check’ and to fuel further thinking on the areas they may need to start doing things differently.

  1. Define and communicate your vision – when people are clear on the end goal it’s easier for them to use their freedom to make decisions and take actions that align rather than conflict with the vision. Define some key working principles, values and behaviours, and place these at the core of everything you do. Think of your vision like a house. If the foundation is your end goal, the frame and internal architecture represent your shared working principles, values and behaviours. To a greater extent, you can then empower your people to choose how they want to decorate.
  • Do your people have clarity and understanding of your vision?
  • Have you set, or even co-created with your team some expectations in terms of values and working principles?
  • Are your people aligned on the attitudes and behaviours required to create the right culture for high performance?
  1. Flex your style – treat your people as individuals and work to understand their strengths, weaknesses, needs and motivators. One size does not fit all – some people will need more clarity, whereas others may need more freedom.
  • Do you understand your peoples’ strengths and weaknesses?
  • Are you clear on which parts of the job you’re willing to allow freedom and which parts you still want to be involved in?
  • Have you asked your people how much freedom and choice they want and matched your leadership style accordingly?
  1. Take a risk – give your people permission to experiment and take risks without the threat of punishment. Share your own hunger for learning and encourage innovation. Ensure that others see that you are also willing to take risks, make mistakes and acknowledge / learn from them. If you find yourself anxious and unwilling to let go, reflect on what is driving your anxiety or seek feedback.
  • Are you prepared to let people take risks and potentially make mistakes in order to learn?
  • Have you discovered what is driving your need to be involved?
  • Do you believe in your people?

If you answered ‘no’ to any of the questions above, use this as a starting place for reflection, further thinking, research and planning. Making even one small change will help you to access the empowerment driver and could make a big difference to the motivation of your people.


About the author
Leigh Chattington and Richard Graham are part of the leadership, learning and organisational development team at Bloomberg

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