How to Empower Staff: The Importance of Trust

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 13th May 2015

“Empowerment” is one of those words that gets used a lot in the world of leadership and management, often without much understanding of what it actually means, or the implications for organisational structure and performance.

What is empowerment?

Empowerment means giving your people a high degree of autonomy in their work, enabling them to be highly innovative. It allows them to think, decide and act independently, delivering superior performance as a result.

How to Empower Staff: The Importance of Trust

If you really want the benefits that a truly ‘empowered’ individual or team can bring, then you have to actually mean it. It’s no good talking about empowerment while closely supervising or monitoring the actions, performance and progress of your staff. To be empowered is to feel trusted and be given freedom to act, without fear of the consequences. Just saying someone is empowered doesn’t make it true.

The benefits of empowering staff

As a leader, it’s tempting then to say, “what’s in it for me?” Consider these two polar opposites: in the first, you have a team of disaffected, unmotivated individuals who do a reasonable job without breaking too much of a sweat. In the other, you have an engaged, motivated team of supportive individuals working to a common goal and releasing their creativity and discretionary effort to achieve goals they truly believe in.

Which one would you like?

How to engage your team members

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How to empower staff: a two way street

The bottom-line is that empowerment actually requires a shift in mindset and attitude both by the leader and the team or individual. The leader needs to relinquish their perceived right or need to exert control over the actions, decisions or immediate outcomes. The individual needs to accept greater responsibility and accountability for their actions, decisions and performance.

A lot of this is in the mind. Few people will be willing to accept greater responsibility and accountability if they fear this will lead to reprisals, punishment or adverse responses from their colleagues or leader.

If you want to empower, you must first prepare the ground. The culture and climate need to be conducive, the processes and structures need to allow sufficient flexibility or ‘wiggle-room’, and the leader of the empowered team or individual needs to feel sufficiently empowered themselves; few leaders will be ready to empower if they are being tightly monitored or supervised themselves, as they will be making themselves vulnerable to criticism.

This relates closely to the essence of the Theory X and Y, or Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum: empowerment is, at heart, a leadership style choice. To make it work, the leader must feel trusted themselves and must feel able to trust their team or individual. This isn’t the same as ‘abdicating responsibility’ as a leader. The buck, if buck there is, remains with you. The credit, if laudable outcomes result, lies with the empowered team or individual.

Learning to empower your staff is an essential part of developing yourself as a successful leader. To find out more about taking your abilities as a leader to the next level, enquire about our leadership and management programmes.

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