What it really means to lead more effectively through empowerment – McKinsey & Company post

Empowerment is a high-touch contact sport, but for “hands-on” leadership to be empowering, you need to be an inspiring coach. In part two of this two-part series, we delve into how leaders can genuinely empower employees and the positive impact this approach can deliver.

Aaron De Smet

By Aaron De Smet

Delivers growth, innovation, and organizational agility and is an expert on culture change, leadership development, team effectiveness, capability building, and transformation

By Caitlin Hewes

By Leigh Weiss

Leading through empowerment is not an easy evolution in management. This form of leadership allows decisions to be made more quickly, and with fewer layers of involvement, but there should also be some guardrails in place that make sense.

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February 17, 2020In our last blog post, “Busting a management myth: empowering employees doesn’t mean leaving them alone,” we discussed how leaders’ fundamental misunderstanding of “empowerment” often results in management styles that doesn’t deliver for managers, employees or the organization. What then does it mean to truly empower those you manage, and what actions can you take to drive results?

Genuine empowerment requires leaders to be involved, to be of service, to coach and mentor, to guide, to inspire – it means frequent, highly involved interactions, just of a different nature than the autocratic and controlling style. Why is genuine empowerment so difficult to achieve in an organization? The table below shares three common reasons why and the unique challenges they pose both for managers and for those they manage.

Common challengesChallenges for managersChallenges for those they manage
Shared hierarchical norms of accountabilityManagers incentivized to be controlling and “in front;” allowing others to make and learn from (acceptable) mistakesStepping outside of the safety provided by the ‘cover’ of an accountable manager is challenging for employees
Commitment to investing coaching timeAdditional time and effort spent investing in others to help them do what you already know how to doManagers often feel pressured to move faster and thus ‘lead the witness;’ it can be easy for employees to slip back into the comfort of co-dependent relationship playing more of a support role, rather than taking the lead and learning through feedback and coaching
Lack of capabilities, skills, and supportLack of tools and reinforcement from leadership/performance management systems which tends to reward and support strong leadership and the avoidance of failures much more than innovation, learning, coaching, and servant leadershipLow tolerance for failure, and getting penalized for failure disproportionally more than rewarded for success, creates a disincentive to ‘step up’ and a confirmation bias that employees can’t or shouldn’t step up

What are concrete actions leaders can take to empower others and improve the speed and quality of decision-making in their organization? Below are four tips to get you started:

1. Provide clear rules

  • Define “in scope” vs. “out of scope” decisions
  • Provide guardrails for what success looks like, criteria to consider, when to just decide vs. seek more input vs. escalate
  • Clearly communicate who makes which decisions
  • Establish specific criteria for when decisions must be escalated for approval

2. Establish clear roles

  • For delegated decisions, assign one person the authority to decide
  • Make it clear to others what their roles are (e.g., a “consult” must have a chance to provide their perspective, but does not have the right to veto/escalate if they disagree)

3. Don’t be a complicit manager

  • More senior leaders should say no if asked to step in to take a decision
  • Avoid escalation in the guise of advice-seeking; instead give options, ask questions, discuss how to make a good decision, highlight important facts or considerations in an unbiased way
  • If a decision has been delegated to a team, and the team disagrees, allow the assigned decision maker(s) to determine if and how to escalate
  • Managers should only escalate if they are truly stuck (not simply concerned that not everyone with input is in unanimous agreement)

4. Address culture and skills

  • Build capabilities (e.g. how to say no and have difficult conversations)
  • Understand and address root causes, (e.g. avoiding or spreading accountability)

This isn’t a one size fits all approach and it will take time to develop the capabilities in your managers and employees to empower and be empowered. Occasionally, when decisions are important and there isn’t a highly capable person, the only option might be closely directing the work or doing it themselves. Building stronger capabilities takes time, and for decisions that must be made in the meantime, micromanaging can be the answer. All work is not equally important, and that’s where managers will need to make tough decisions about how they lead.

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