Friday, November 6, 2015

A Culture of Empowerment

To empower is to give the team a means to shine.

One of the characteristics of Agile is empowerment. Now for that to be possible, you need a certain type of ecosystem set up to allow empowerment to actually begin to surface and then grow. But, in reality, the 'senior' people who have the 'authority' to grow this type of ecosystem tend to like the 'idea' of an empowered workforce, but lack of planning, investment, and actions to actually grow an empowered workforce. So what does empowerment truly mean? How to cultivate a culture of empowerment? And as leaders or managers, should you ask yourselves: do our existing organizational structures (management, HR policies, peer and performance reviews, etc.) allow for the emergence of an empowered, self-actualizing worker, who then joins with other such workers to make high-performing teams and build a high mature organization ultimately?

'Empowerment' is very much a two-way street. Empowerment is like respect and works both ways. For every manager willing to truly foster and encourage ownership and empowering people, you'll also find people who are very comfortable being 'just a cog in a machine.' To gain empowerment, teams or individuals need to earn the level of trust. Trust is a key component of empowerment. Trust comes in stages; trust is earned by creating risk and offering reliance. When a team takes a risk and excels at it, it, in turn, feels more confident and perhaps empowered. But if a risk - or challenge - is never presented, the team may never achieve empowerment. To give empowerment blindly is dangerous. Management can give full empowerment to a matured team, but not to a team that is not mature enough. The immature team needs room to grow and move but if they are working on something critical, the processes need to be well aligned to get things done both effectively and efficiently.

Empowerment is something that is learned. Both sides need to understand what it means and they may need to be given permission to both those who empower and to those be empowered. If a team has always been told what to do, they are not going to allow themselves to be empowered. Similarly, managers will not know how to empower nor how to trust. To empower is to give the team a means to shine. It is not about individuals, but how well the team works together. There is no space for prejudice. There should be a sense of trust and encouragement for the members who are not doing well or lack the skill to fulfill his/her role. Be sensitive to the words used and invest heavily in the retrospective. Empowerment relies on security; people must feel safe to take hold of the empowerment reins. Some will just do this, other people need extrinsic reinforcement to really feel that safety is there. For people to feel safe, they must feel that their jobs won't be compromised, physiological needs are met, they don't risk isolation by peers or managers for having contrary ideas or for taking risks, and that they are given room to make choices for growth, in ways meaningful to them.

Empowerment implies, if not requires, responsibility and accountability--both the negative and positive flavors of the terms. Empowerment and accountability must go hand in hand. When we are funding one without insisting on the other, resources are wasted and dysfunction reigns supreme. But it's important that everyone now has the expectations in a new way of working. It's also critical that those leading the transition make it clear that with empowerment comes responsibility, innovation, and sometimes fun and more productivity. Surely empowerment doesn’t mean to make people cozy or just softening their words, it means in high-mature, self-managing teams, talent people creating complex products are smart enough to come together, and so as long as they are clear on the goal & boundaries – they will break up the work amongst them and figure it out. Empowered!

There are lots of ways to build a culture of empowerment. Rolling up your sleeves, having a little empathy, sharing the challenges and collective wisdom, and lining up on a shared target. The organizations with the culture of empowerment will reap the benefits of knowledge workers who have self-actualized, the abundance of creativity via out-of-box thinking, and the amplified human capabilities. Under such a working environment, quality is rewarded, and human potential is unleashed.


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