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“E” is for Empower Others
The second step in the RELAX Leadership Formula
Everyone talks about empowerment but I don’t think most leaders really “get it.” Far too many of the supervisors I’ve had over the years equate “empowerment” with “accountability.” In fact, I remember a supervisor at GM telling me that being “empowered” means you don’t get to hide behind the boss – you get to be out in the spotlight to take the glory… or the shame.
Relaxed Leaders delegate responsibility but retain accountability.
That’s NOT empowerment – it’s abdication of accountability – and it’s not appropriate. As a Relaxed Leader, you absolutely have to embrace this concept: we delegate responsibility but retain accountability. Yes, we hold our direct reports accountable to us but we always remain ultimately accountable for the work they do.
What Empowerment ISN’T
Empowerment isn’t simply giving someone the power and authority to do whatever they want in whatever way they want either. This is also where too many people get it wrong, and it’s understandable because it’s close to the dictionary definition of “empower.”
Empower is defined as giving (someone) the authority or power to do something. The typical example is when a bookkeeper is empowered to sign checks on behalf of the organization or a lower level finance staff member is empowered to make purchases with the organization’s credit card.
Yes, that’s one definition of empowerment but it’s not really what we’re talking about as part of the RELAX formula. These examples are very narrow in focus and have well-defined rules, restrictions, and oversight to ensure the empowerment remains limited. This task-focused form of empowerment is nothing more than giving someone the authority to execute their part of a tightly controlled process.
What Empowerment IS
For Relaxed Leaders, empowerment is about ensuring people have the knowledge, skills, and information they need in order for us to feel confident giving them very wide latitude. And then it’s about actually giving them that latitude to be creative and try new things.
Lots of leaders understand all of that but they still mess up the whole responsibility vs. accountability piece. Generally speaking, there are two things that tend to happen.
The first is what I mentioned earlier, when leaders try to delegate accountability as part of the empowerment. If something goes wrong, the employee is going to take the hit and the employee knows it. What tends to happen is that the employee plays it safe – she doesn’t really stretch herself or try anything new – and ends up simply doing what’s always been done, using the well-known and accepted practices. Creativity is limited because it ventures too far into the unknown, which could cost her a lot if it fails.
This faux empowerment doesn’t accomplish the goals of true empowerment because it stifles creativity and simply maintains the status quo. In other words, it causes the organization to stagnate.
The second common situation is when the leader delegates responsibility and retains the accountability... but then ensures their employees don’t fail. It’s an understandable approach. The thinking is, “If I’m on the hook for anything that goes wrong, then I’m going to make sure nothing goes wrong!”
This approach isn’t always improper. If you have inexperienced employees, they’ll need a lot more support and guidance in order for them to learn and grow. But in most cases, this type of oversight shouldn’t last long. Just like a baby bird, your inexperienced employees need to get out of the nest and try their wings as soon as possible because you can’t fly for them.
The Power of Empowerment
Assuming your employees have the basic knowledge and skills they need to do their jobs, then you’re not empowering them if you’re jumping in to ensure they don’t fail. Relaxed Leaders need to have the courage (and the stomach) to let their direct reports fail because the lessons are better and they have a greater impact than what we learn from a success – especially a success that was guaranteed by an intervention by the boss.
Now, we do have to temper this a little bit. The goal isn’t to “give ‘em enough rope” – the goal is to let them try to succeed in situations where they aren’t necessarily guaranteed to succeed. However, if I see an employee heading down a path that I think will lead to certain disaster, I will step in with a coaching intervention. I won’t tell them exactly what to do but I might get them to think through the potential consequences of what they had planned. If they still want to proceed after the coaching conversation, then I’ll need to make a decision. As long as a failure won’t be too detrimental to the team, the organization, or the customer, then I’ll probably let them try it their way. If the outcome is as I predicted (they fail), then I’ll coach them through the process of damage control and problem repair.
The difficult part of this is that I need to be ready to step up and be accountable for the failure – even though I was pretty sure it was going to end the way it did. That can be very difficult to explain to senior leaders, who usually only want to hear good news. When your boss’s boss’s boss wants all your metrics to be “green” all the time, he’ll definitely hate a “red” metric that was caused by you letting someone learn a lesson!
In most organizations, this attitude from senior leadership is one of the main reasons why true empowerment is so difficult for many leaders to embrace.
The Risk & Reward of Empowerment
Relaxed Leaders know that empowering their direct reports isn’t simply a risk – it’s a risk that offers an incredible reward. When the people you’re leading are allowed to be creative and experiment with new ways of doing their work, it gets them excited and energized, and their experimentation can lead to amazing improvements. Even if they try something and it doesn’t work as planned, they’ll see it as a chance to learn and won’t consider it a failure. Or even if they think of it as a failure, they won’t think of themselves as failures – and that’s absolutely critical!
You might be thinking, “Truly empowering people, delegating responsibility and not accountability, and even letting them fail... sure sounds STRESSFUL! How can you be a relaxed leader when you’re doing that?”
Well, I never said being a Relaxed Leader would be easy. Empowering your direct reports is a skill that you’ll need to develop, and building any skill takes study, practice, trial, and even error – all of which can be stressful. But once you’ve developed the skill, true empowerment becomes a force multiplier. You’ll be able to give your team members assignments, make the goals clear, and trust that they’ll tackle them with energy and creativity. At that point, you’ll need to be available to coach a bit, advise a little, and remove obstacles when necessary.
Now doesn’t that sound a bit more relaxed?
The Bottom Line...
Empowerment is a concept that is often misunderstood by managers because there is risk involved – but the rewards can be amazing if we learn how to empower our direct reports correctly. Figuring out how to effectively empower others takes time and deliberate practice on our part, which can cause some short term stress. But in the long run, learning to empower our direct reports makes it much, much easier to be a truly Relaxed Leader!