When I was an employee, I was never a part of a culture where people were empowered to act on ideas without asking for permission. Anything out of the ordinary I ever did as an employee happened because I acted on my instincts without considering whether or not I was going to get in trouble for doing so; I just did it.
Most of the time, everything worked out. I soon learned that to me it’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. There were people who called me a salmon, because I went against the current; basically a contrarian. This made me think about why I had no problem acting “empowered” and others didn’t, or had to have someone’s permission to act. I was the one who questioned authority, and didn’t give a damn what they said if their response was something along the lines of playing it safe.
Did I get into trouble? Sometimes. But most of the time I made my “superiors” look good because my ideas worked, and that created an interesting dynamic between me and them. I empowered myself. I could care less if my boss liked me or not. I knew I was making them look good, and so that became a position of power for me; which I used strategically. I started getting more leeway, and also they felt threatened by me. I never cared. I just wanted to do things better than before, and was relentless about it.
As I became my own boss I knew I wanted the people I worked with, or the people who worked for me, to be empowered to act. I didn’t want to have a culture where people are empowered or are asked to be but don’t act. I soon found that it wasn’t as simple as it is for me to just act.
Acting empowered means having an ownership mindset, in which you certainly seek guidance but don’t wait for permission to act. The keyword is “ownership”, where people feel like they own the outcome; they hold themselves accountable for it. These type of people are rare, and you must unleash them when you find them.
Now, as with everything human there are roadblocks to “empowerment”. Three blockers to empowerment are lack of confidence, motivation, and understanding of the full scope of what’s required to translate an idea into value.
- Lack of confidence. A person won’t own the outcome if he / she doesn’t have confidence in his / her abilities to take action and solve a problem themselves.
- Lack of motivation. A person won’t own the outcome if he / she isn’t motivated to act on her own or encouraged by the manager.
- Lack of understanding. A person won’t own the outcome if he / she doesn’t understand the full scope of what’s required to translate an idea into value; basically this has to do with perspective and training.
So, as a leader what do you do?
Leaders must recognize there are blockers to empowerment, and work to eliminate them. Don’t just assume and hope that people will act because you ask them to bring ideas forward and to act on those ideas. Yes, set the example; this is a good start. But encourage and support people when ideas don’t work; celebrate the attitude and behavior.