When Empowerment Isn’t Empowering.

By Next Step Partners
Partner, Next Step Partners

Leaders who don’t have time to think are in trouble, as are their organizations. To make time, deciding not to do other things is one option. Otherwise, the time to think, and mental freedom, can come only from true empowerment.

What’s empowerment?

It is not delegation—the transfer of discrete tasks. Delegation can give you time but not the mental detachment you need, because you are still in an owning-leading role. Empowerment is a deeper and more trusting sharing of authority that allows the leader to get back not just time but mental energy. It means letting others lead for you, not just do for you.

Some leaders delegate but call it empowerment, or they empower in an incomplete, halting form. Both are worse than nothing, because they feel like disempowerment. Instead of creating space for others to grow, disempowerment breeds confusion and distrust. In contrast, if leaders are clear, committed and trusting when empowering others, great benefits result. Everyone grows; everyone wins.

So empowerment is a persistent need but also a challenge. Let’s talk about how leaders can actually do it right.

The four ingredients to meaningful empowerment

  • Trust. You can’t empower someone you don’t trust. So you must have a sincere belief that the person has what it takes to lead (not just do, but lead) the work and be successful. Get the right person or don’t do it.
  • Investment. Initially, empowerment requires extra time to coach, explain and develop. It is about giving a member of your team the full context, including your expectations. Like any investment, you pay the cost before you see the benefit.
  • Risk. True empowerment means the process and results will be different than if you had done it yourself. So there is risk—with potential downside, but upside too.
  • Sharing. When you empower others, the work is no longer all or even primarily yours, and that may mean less credit for you. Empowerment requires you to go beyond ego and decide what else—apart from credit—you value.

What most leaders know intuitively is that the investment and risk are short-term. The benefits last. Empowerment builds trust and performance. When a manager says, “I am doing this now but you are fully capable of it” — that feedback counts, and it marks the beginning of a great development experience.

So, assuming you have the four ingredients above, what tactics enable empowerment? From the masters of empowerment, here are some simple tactics that work:

  • Announce. Be as clear as you can that you want to empower, why you want to do it, and what your expectations are. Take out the mystery.
  • Make it gradual. Give the person a chance to develop skills. Teach, support, observe—and lighten your touch when you can, erring on the side of sooner. Help the person learn when to check in and when not to.
  • Stay cool. You may not know right away whether your person can handle it, or what higher purpose you will find for your time. Let yourself, and the person you have empowered, be uncomfortable. Don’t panic or feel guilty.

If you do it right, true empowerment is among the most profound leadership changes you can make. The best and bravest leaders empower because they know it serves the business, their people and themselves. Are you ready?



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