Team Empowerment Happens When Managers Work For Their Teams

Written by Karen Plum, Director of Research and Development

When researching the practices that make teams most productive, team empowerment emerged as an important element. This is worth examining, particularly as organisations move to more virtual and dispersed models of work which require different styles of leadership and workership. Empowerment is not something that can be given to people – any more than we can truly motivate or give their work meaning. It’s about creating the right conditions to enable colleagues to feel empowered and to take responsibility.

What is empowerment?

Empowerment at an individual level is referred to by academics as “psychological empowerment”. This is linked to positive experiences such as job satisfaction, commitment to the organisation and task performance. The sense of psychological empowerment derives from having control over our work and appears to be linked to four sub dimensions which contribute to the overall feeling of empowerment:

Source: Spreitzer, 1995 – quoted by Seibert et al 2011

These are all about us as individuals – what we feel, experience and believe. These are not things that can be given to us, although I suggest they can be taken away or damaged by others. Simply telling someone they are empowered to make decisions or decide how to carry out activities doesn’t necessarily make them feel empowered to take charge. A sense of empowerment comes from within – we can empower ourselves through our belief in our abilities, our track record and our experience.

Can managers empower us?

If we feel capable and confident about our abilities, but our manager refuses to let us do the work in our own way, this can damage or destroy any sense of empowerment, leading potentially to disengagement, dissatisfaction and the withdrawal of our discretionary energy. We revert to doing as we’re told, because there is no reward or appreciation for taking initiative, being creative, or going the extra mile. On the contrary, it may result in us getting into hot water.

This managerial style can simply reflect the manager’s desire for control, a need to feel important, or a lack of managerial skills and understanding of how to get the best from people. A lack of autonomy in our work is perceived by our brains as a threat – in the same way as it perceives a physical threat. In that threat state, our brain is deprived of the ability to think clearly and make decisions. By micromanaging, a manager could be responding to a threat to their own autonomy and certainty and in turn they transfer this threat to colleagues by removing their choice and control. This is a vicious circle that only the manager’s action can truly break.

While managers cannot fully empower their people, they can provide the conditions within which they can thrive and flourish, securing their own sense of certainty, autonomy and empowerment. In this way they create a safe environment in which people can operate, take risks and experiment with different ideas and approaches, in pursuit of the best outcomes. Here are some behaviours which could be helpful:

  1. Showing appreciation for people’s efforts and accomplishments – thereby demonstrating that they are valued and that appreciation is something everyone can express. Operating in a “recognition desert” where efforts go unnoticed and unappreciated is unlikely to empower!
  2. Letting people know you have their back and won’t hang them out to dry. Protecting them particularly while they are experimenting / learning, and letting them know they have your support and trust.
  3. Providing appropriate authority for tasks and projects – firstly ensuring people have the necessary skills, expertise and knowledge (or have access to those from colleagues), setting them up for success.
  4. Demonstrating trust by providing a brief, and possibly some options or choices (particularly if they lack experience) and letting them deliver as they see best.
  5. Letting people know they can ask for feedback and when they do, trying to understand what aspects they would like feedback about (i.e. what is important to them, rather than what you are itching to tell them!). It’s worth bearing in mind that offering feedback can feel threatening – the phrase “Can I give you some feedback?” can instill anxiety in the recipient, mostly because feedback offered this way is rarely positive! Ideally feedback should be constructive and developmental – i.e. aspects the person could do more of / could develop, rather than focusing on the negative.

Managers may or may not be experts in the field in which their people work. Unless they are very new to their roles, they probably know more about their jobs than the manager. So, the manager’s role is to help, to ensure people are aligned to team goals and to facilitate their best work, not to interfere. Their outputs might not be perfect, and they might not be the same as the manager would have produced – there are ALWAYS different ways to do things, and rarely is one approach perfect. When a manager asks for changes to be made or for something to be done differently, is that more about their need to be “right”?

Things can also always be improved, but leading executive educator and coach Marshall Goldsmith shared a story of a global CEO who practiced a simple technique:

Before speaking, he would take a breath and ask himself, “Is it worth it?” He learned that 50% of the time his comments may have been right on, but they weren’t worth it. He quickly began focusing more on empowering others and letting them take ownership and commitment for decisions, and less on his own need to add value.”

Clearly if something is incorrect, we should not gloss over it. But there is much to learn and be gained from taking ownership of a piece of work and living with the consequences. Oftentimes people know where the flaws are – and will learn to take a different approach next time. The important thing is that THEY came to that conclusion, without being told. Telling can break trust and reduce the desire to take responsibility next time.

How can managers empower teams?

A natural extension of facilitating empowerment in competent and autonomous individuals is to embrace the idea of them having a degree of self-determination or self-management as a team. The term “team empowerment” refers to the shared perception of the team regarding their collective level of empowerment. Whether they feel able to make decisions about how to perform group tasks, take responsibility for outputs and collectively reflect upon their own performance with a view to future improvement.

Research shows that teams that feel empowered experience more intrinsically meaningful or worthwhile work, enjoying a higher degree of choice or discretion about how the work is done (see Seibert research referred to above).

“How can I help you?”

..the most empowering question a manager can ask

As with individual empowerment, it is critical that the team feels supported in making these decisions and knows the boundaries within which they can operate – for example if there is a ceiling beyond which they aren’t authorised to spend money or commit resources. Once the brief is clear, leave them alone but let them know they can seek input or advice if for some reason further clarity or expertise is required.

This must come from an authentic place. A disingenuous manager that doesn’t walk the walk will be revealed quickly if they don’t follow through – and will break the trust and undermine the confidence of those they are trying to encourage to take responsibility. This takes time to build and sustain, particularly if it’s a change of direction and style for the manager and the team.

COVID triggered empowerment

Many have been experimenting during the Covid-19 lock down period which caused so many to work apart from colleagues. Individuals and teams have become empowered either by design or just by force of circumstances. If this has been a positive experience then it is vital that managers and organisations don’t revert to old ways of doing things, but try to build on the best of what has been established over this period.

For those embarking on this approach, it may be wise to start small and build up – i.e. starting with small, self-contained tasks, with a clear process to review the experience and provide support and constructive feedback through coaching and mentoring. Essentially, it’s a more collaborative, adult approach to involving everyone in leading the team’s efforts and taking responsibility for success.

Empowering managers to empower?

Changing management style isn’t easy, and certainly a more transformational style seems to be supportive of self-managing, empowered teams – as opposed to a more transactional approach. Naturally, that is a generalisation and different roles, or levels of experience within the team will call for modifications to management approaches.

The most effective managers are those that support and develop their team, rather than micromanaging them. Essentially, they work for the team, not the other way around. To make this level of change can be challenging for managers, particularly those that are new to the role or who never received support and guidance to develop their managerial style and find the best approach. It’s worth remembering that this can also be threatening to a manager’s perceived status and control and therefore they can experience quite natural resistance to change.

Organisations could look at ways to support and empower managers to adopt different approaches so that manager and team development becomes the focus. This may need careful planning, management coaching and change management to embed it into a new way of operating.

If successful, not only will colleagues flourish, but the next generation of managers can be home grown and lead by example when they move into leadership positions, gradually embedding a more developmental organisational culture.

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