Empowerment has been globally defined as “the process of increasing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes.”
In business, empowerment refers to a broad delegation of authority and commensurate responsibility to positions and persons that traditionally have not enjoyed such latitude of action.
When I first attempted empowerment decades ago as a novice supervisor/leader, I did not always enjoy the results. I quickly realized that training and experience were two vital ingredients in the recipe that all those glowing articles in the business press tended to gloss over. I also learned that empowerment was a process, not an event. I learned that power was often best handed over gradually with plenty of opportunity for feedback, evaluation, teaching, and learning with me being the student as much as teacher.
I found that following the structure of a “Win-Win Performance Agreement” was a wonderful guide to empowerment and a powerful tool to release the potential of team members in a disciplined way.
The key elements of a Win-Win Performance Agreement
- Desired results
- Available Resources
How do we measure results? In the end, what will the result look like, feel like, accomplish? Short term? Long term? How will we know when we have achieved our goal? It is vital that all parties involved have the same goal. Often I’ve found myself working on a project only to find the round hole I’m digging does not match up well with the square peg the rest of the team is whittling. Also, it’s difficult to hit a target you can’t see. None of this shooting the side of the barn and then painting the target around what you hit.
What are the guard rails, the areas where you cannot go? I often specify principled profit, long-term sustainable profit (cheating doesn’t count and neither do quickie fixes that rapidly unravel with lasting unpleasant consequences). What are the known failure paths? I often hesitate here. Balancing the benefits of sharing the lessons of the past versus saddling the new team with a mental box. It’s a judgment call, no doubt about it.
Financial, organizational, training, experience.
Frequency of reporting requirements? Intermediate checkpoints? Trust but verify. Expect the best and inspect for what you expect. What gets measured gets done.
For both success and failure, and all the degrees between them.
I have found both “I Intend To” and “Immediate I Have” to be excellent ways of communicating, creating flexible guidelines/guard rails and providing accountability.
“I Intend To” (generally IIT in an email) is simply a statement of future action (usually within 24 hours, less perhaps if minor) allowing sufficient time for further guidance or input if I desire.
“Immediate I Have” (IIH) is a higher level of empowerment, simply real-time notification of action taken. I like it because it allows me to have my finger on the pulse of the organization, keeps me informed, and allows me to respond knowledgeably if any one broaches the subject. On occasion I request that in the future certain categories of IIHs become ITTs and vice versa.
As a further resource on the topic, here is Stephen Covey’s Conditions of Empowerment from his book “Principle-Centered Leadership.”
Conditions of Empowerment
by Stephen R. Covey
Let’s look more deeply at six critical conditions of empowerment necessary to release the enormous capacity within your people to meet and exceed the needs of customers and other important stakeholders:
The foundation to all effectiveness and empowerment is trustworthiness. It means that individuals demonstrate both strong personal character and professional competence. They are committed to the shared mission and values of your organization.
One indication of character is reflected in the way we deal with others. How leaders are perceived to treat those they lead will have a far more significant impact on employee performance than the organizational mission statement hanging on the wall. An empowering leadership style requires open communications, not closed; releasing people through win-win performance agreements, not controlling them; and synergistic approaches to making decisions and giving directions, not authoritarian methods.
Trust is the fundamental principle underlying and sustaining long-term, interdependent relationships. It is the fruit of trustworthiness. An environment of trust requires individual and organizational trustworthiness. Have you ever experienced a trusting relationship, sustained over time, in the absence of trustworthiness? You can see how the two principles are inseparable. Trust in a culture is the key factor that enables people to unleash their unique, creative capacities.
A system of win-win agreements
Too often, workers misunderstand what is expected of them; they become frustrated when lack of clarity around guidelines or available resources makes their supervisor or customers upset. In their simplest application, win-win agreements represent an ongoing, mutually beneficial relationship between two or more people or organizations who work together. They consistently engage in open, synergistic interaction, always seeking optimum, mutual benefit.
Win-win agreements mean constant understanding and commitment around five key elements to guide the collaborative behavior of the parties: desired results, guidelines, resources, accountability and consequences. When an organization supports such relationships systemically, win-win agreements create an effective framework for interdependent cooperation.
Self-directed work teams
When leaders structure their organizations to support self-directed work teams, they create a key condition of empowerment. Employees who engage in team and individual self-direction create a powerful force for self-motivated continuous improvement. Special training may be necessary to help people accept the responsibility and develop the skills for effective self-supervision. Deep understanding and commitment to the mission, values and strategy of the organization are essential. The payoff in a leaner, more flexible, responsive and productive organization can be incredible.
Aligned strategy, structure and systems
Organizational trustworthiness requires alignment-the harmonious interaction of mission, values, strategy, structure, systems and management style with the realities of stakeholder needs and the environment.