Once upon a day, if you asked a leader what quality they value most in their employees, they might have said “loyalty.” Thankfully, gone are the days when unconditional devotion to an employers was so highly prized. Most leaders and managers are more likely to recognize that the best places to work today are those where everyone is free to give input, initiate changes, and help guide the business strategy or direction.
In a word, the most successful teams are empowered. But creating a workplace where everyone is able to take charge can be tricky. How can you do this while still steering everyone in the right direction? How do you ensure productivity, and avoid absolute chaos?
Let’s take a closer look at some of the challenges of creating a culture of team empowerment, as well as some strategies for doing so.
What is team empowerment?
Team empowerment is generally present when employees have the confidence, support, resources, and authority to make decisions and take action. They don’t always need to wait around for managerial instructions or approval. Instead, when they see something that needs to be done, whether it’s a problem to be solved or an innovative idea to be implemented, they possess the knowledge, ability, and go-ahead to do it.
Although they might not report to a traditional manager, empowered teams typically choose a team leader from within, to help give the group direction. Still, they often have a flat structure or hierarchy, in which everyone has equal ability to suggest changes, give input, and make decisions, regardless of position or experience.
There are three major types of empowered teams:
- Daily work units: These teams work together every day and focus on their usual tasks.
- Project-specific: These teams are organized around a specific project or task, such as developing a new product. Often, they may include members from several different disciplines, such as finance, marketing, and engineering.
- Customer-specific: These teams are formed in order to address a specific problem affecting customer satisfaction, such as a quality control or supply chain issue.
A personalized leadership approach for each team member.
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Challenges of empowering your team
Unfortunately, empowering a team isn’t as simple as just handing over decision-making, and wishing them the best. It can take a good amount of training and preparation to ensure they are functioning well enough to handle the responsibilities of managing themselves. Here are a few challenges you’ll have to help them overcome first:
- Trust issues: There needs to be a firmly established sense of trust between both management and the team, as well as between the team members themselves, before a team can become empowered. Otherwise, they may not take their new responsibilities in good faith, or may not offer each other the support they need to succeed.
- Poor communication: The ability to talk through problems, give concise instructions, and set clear and understandable goals is an important precursor for empowerment. If communication problems persist, then the team won’t likely be capable of working together fluidly enough to be completely accountable.
- Unclear goals: If you empower a team to make their own decisions and get work done on their own, do they have a good understanding of what needs to be done? Likewise, do they know how to set clear goals themselves rather than rely on outside help? These abilities are vital to have before going independent.
- Interpersonal conflict: Empowered teams will need to collectively make decisions, choose their own leader, and collaborate and support each other constantly. All this means that the team members must be able to work together seamlessly, making them no place for interpersonal conflict of any kind.
The advantages of empowerment in the workplace
Empowered teams can be tricky to build – every member must be a good communicator, and trust needs to be firmly established – but research consistently shows the effort is worth it. According to one study from the American Psychological Association, empowered employees often display stronger performance, satisfaction, and commitment to their job.
Here are some other distinct benefits of team empowerment:
A funny thing can happen when you give a team more power and responsibility – they’ll work harder to keep it. In a group setting, that often translates into greater accountability. Because each person on an empowered team has a stake in their success, they’ll push themselves further to accomplish their goals, while also making sure others do the same.
Empowered teams are unleashed teams. No longer beholden to managerial expectations or decisions, they are free to come up with their own solutions. This can mean the sudden emergence of new voices and perspectives, especially from employees who might not otherwise speak up in a normal team. And that can lead to a burst of new creative answers to old problems.
Teams under traditional management don’t have much reason to improve. They just have to meet expectations. But when you remove that ceiling, suddenly the sky’s the limit. They’ll find new ways to improve productivity and team performance, uncover more efficient paths to success, and dedicate themselves to even bigger and loftier goals than before.
Even if the empowered team struggles at first, even if they miss the mark or fall short of their goals, don’t be surprised if you notice their enthusiasm steadily increasing along the way. Simply by giving them the independence to try out their own solutions and steer their own ship, you are showing them a certain level of respect – and that is one of the best ways of improving morale.
Trust, as the saying goes, is a two-way street. That means, when you empower teams, you are entrusting them to finish a project or find a solution all on their own. In turn, they will likely instill an equal amount of trust in the decisions you or other teams make. This will help increase the effectiveness of your organization all around.
Proven techniques to boost team empowerment
From better productivity to improved morale, empowered teams can be great for business. But where should you start? In order to begin reaping the benefits, it’s important to first lay the groundwork for a successful and autonomous team. Here are some ways to do just that.
Provide clarity over the company’s vision.
Making sure each member of the team is fully aligned when it comes to their purpose is a great place to begin. Review what the company’s vision or mission means, then go over how their team can help fulfill and broaden those goals. Take this a step further and explain how each team member can or should contribute to the larger organizational vision. This way, they’ll all know what to accomplish from the start.
Offer honest feedback.
Empowered teams should be high-functioning – and the only way they’re going to get there is by addressing their weaknesses and making strategic improvements. This requires honest feedback. If you notice them doing something wrong, you should tell them. Just make sure this feedback is truthful but constructive. Point out their shortcomings, but also help them find the right path.
Challenge your employees to grow and develop.
Never underestimate the power of a good challenge. Even for a team that might be working well together, you may be able to uncover hidden reserves of dedication or talent if you push them just a little further along. For even better results, do this while providing them with the resources they need to grow and develop, whether that’s access to additional training, networking, or even your own personal mentorship.
Remove major obstacles to success.
Is the team dependent on an outside division or agency in order to do their best work? Do they consistently run into resourcing problems that are beyond their control? These kinds of obstacles can slow down your team and keep them from ever being fully empowered. As a manager, you should use your influence to help eliminate any of these impediments so that the team has a clear path to success.
Encourage consistent collaboration.
If a team isn’t comfortable collaborating with one another, then they certainly aren’t ready for empowerment. After determining there are no underlying obstacles standing in the way of collaboration, such as internal conflict or communication issues, then you can take some actionable steps to make collaboration more common. For example, you could kick off each meeting with a warm-up activity so that the team can get to know each other better. Or you could be more ambitious and organize fun team-building events, such as a scavenger hunt. These will require individuals to work together, a habit they’ll hopefully continue in their daily work.
Prioritize building trust.
Trust is elemental to teamwork, which means it needs to be firmly established before any team can practice empowerment. You can help them build it up several ways. First, make sure all roles and responsibilities are clearly defined so that everyone knows what they should be doing. Next, help create a communication plan in order to avoid misunderstandings. From there, you could help put in place a conflict resolution framework so that they can quickly work through problems, or even a strategic framework that emphasizes transparency and consistency as they work through each project.
Every person on an empowered team needs to be responsible for not only the work they take on, but also any mistakes along the way. This is what’s meant by ownership. You can help them adopt this mindset by first giving them the space to take on a project in their own way. If they succeed, recognize this win and encourage them to celebrate. But if they fall short, sit down and help them analyze where they might have gone wrong. Turn it into a lesson they can use for next time. Instead of being discouraged, they should leave this session excited to own their next challenge.
Fostering a culture of employee empowerment
Empowered teams are regularly the most successful for a reason: they consist of fully engaged employees who are comfortable expressing themselves, know how to work through challenges and conflict, and fully trust the rest of their coworkers. But producing empowered teams requires leaders who know how to properly support their teams at every step. This means providing them with the resources and expertise they need, as well as the trust and responsibility to learn and grow and eventually own all of their projects.