The journey of a leader is one of continuous growth and regular self-examination. At least, I know mine was. I can still recall how I felt as a newly appointed leader. I began making strides as a front-line leader by taking on a lot; then I took on too much and my supervisor warned me to get my priorities straight and “learn to delegate.” So, I embarrassingly begin partitioning out parts of my to-do list and handing them to the trusted members of my team; temporarily letting go of what was in my control and learning to trust others to get it done on my behalf. After a while, I learned to manage my time and priorities better, and I became more comfortable delegating actions items when appropriate.
This worked great for a while, but then something started to happen with my team; my employee engagement scores start to diminish, good employees start to leave, and I was suddenly faced with having to address high turnover rates. Though I had grown secure enough to share the work, I was not yet savvy enough to realize that did not mean I could step away. As I considered the challenges I now faced, my misstep began to dawn on me:
• I neglected to explain why I needed them to do “this.”
• I made assignments without ensuring the team knew where to start.
• I never explained how they would know if they achieved the goal, and never set a way to measure success.
• I failed to set a deadline and milestones to track progress.
• I left the team to “get it done” on their own and focused my new free time elsewhere.
I had definitely delegated. What I failed to do was empower.
Many leaders often find themselves in the exact same spot I was as a younger leader – mistaking empowering my employees with good delegation skills. Delegation is a straightforward way of assigning tasks to your employees. It gives an employee enough to act on your behalf, but not enough to connect to a purpose, the tools, and resources to effectively complete the work and be inspired to innovate.
Empowerment, on the other hand, gives an employee more authority with the aim of developing enthusiasm, commitment, and expertise, while inspiring innovation that will benefit the organization over time. In other words, empowerment is allowing employees to act on their own behalf, but you stay engaged in a supporting role. Research on empowerment has shown that when employees feel empowered at work, they are more creative and helpful at work, job performance improves, employee satisfaction climbs and individuals are more committed to the organization.
To make my work manageable and lead a team that was on fire to perform, I learned these three behaviors of empowerment:
1. Believe in your team and they will believe in themselves. You show your team you value their time and contributions by getting straight to the point and sharing your vision of the future. A "vision" tells your employees why they are working for the organization. It paints a picture of success, the path to take, a deadline to make it happen and milestones to measure progress along the way. Understanding the context of their work will enable them to innovate and find alternate solutions to problems themselves.
2. Be Present and Listen. Often, leaders make themselves present, but are not present when they are with the team. When you round on the team, make sure to have a purpose to your presence by asking powerful open-ended questions (open-ended questions begin with: How, What, When, Where, Who, Why, If, Tell me about…) that encourages the team to search for answers and new possibilities, and then actively listen to what their answer is. It’s ironic that the most important aspect of communication is not speaking, it’s listening. A good leader listens to all sensory components and intuitively connects to the person’s real message; they listen to what is said, the person’s tone of voice, energy level, and feelings as well as what’s NOT being said.
3. Support and Acknowledge. One of the best ways to boost people’s confidence and keep them inspired to achieve the objective is to actively support them and build them up emotionally. Do not assume your team has what they need to get things done; anticipate their potential needs and acquire what is needed. Be prepared for the team to hit barriers along the way and use your position to remove them. Finally, keep pace with your team's progress by checking in often, sharing measured updates on the progress they are making, and offer appropriate recognition and reward along the way. Being able to see that progress is being made, keeps the team moving toward the vision and the goals. Genuine and specific acknowledgement of milestone achievements will encourage more of them.
Without these three behaviors, any intended empowerment is really just delegation. When you delegate, you rely on the team to step up; when you empower, the team relies on you to step up. When the team becomes empowered is when you will turn the corner toward a team-based approach to getting the work done.