I’ll never forget my first boss.
Fresh out of college, I started working with Julie as her executive assistant and spent the better part of my twenties working alongside her. The opportunity to work with Julie as she built, managed, and led our team remains one of my greatest professional privileges to date. And there’s still a part of me that’s working even now just to make Julie proud.
So, what made working with Julie so motivating?
Julie is a master at the art of empowerment.
Let me be clear; our work was hard. Working in local government, the pace was relentless, resources were limited, and the cost of mistakes was great. Our success hinged on everyone always doing their best. With high expectations and big challenges, it would’ve been easy for our team to lose motivation and lower the bar for ourselves. And yet, Julie empowered us to pull together, do our best work, and see ourselves as important contributors to our team’s overall success.
To unpack the art of empowerment, we look at the three critical elements for empowered leadership: Authenticity, Resources, and Trust. Learn the ART of empowering your team:
At its core, empowerment comes from authentic connections. As human beings, we are social creatures who are wired to build connectivity with the other people around us (including our coworkers). And we all want to feel acknowledged, understood, and respected as people first. As a leader, it’s your job to cultivate those feelings in your team to compel their greatest work.
So, consider first the level of personal interest you show in your team members. How often do you connect with your staff person-to-person? How often do you ask how they are or what’s going on in their lives outside of work? Cultivating personal relationships may seem unprofessional as the norms in our workplaces usually put output above connection. Yet I encourage you to notice if your employees perform better if they feel seen and acknowledged as human beings.
Secondly, authenticity is strengthened in the workplace when your team operates as a collective. Thinking back to my time on Julie’s team, she understood that the daily grind could easily make our team feel burned out or defeated. What we needed was a rallying cry to unify us. At one point, she started calling us the “Best Team in America.” And let me tell you, being a part of that team is a point of pride for me even today.
That simple unifying vision became a connective force that elevated how we saw ourselves and motivated us to do our absolute best work for the group's sake. Most of all, it helped us keep going when things were hard because what else would the “Best Team in America” do?
To feel empowered, your team members must feel like they have the resources they need to do their job well. As their leader, those resources are your responsibility. One of the most pivotal shifts you can make as a leader is to shift the focus from what gets done to how it gets done. Your job is not to produce the product. Your job is making it possible for other people to produce the work product better.
Part of this shift is ensuring that your team members feel empowered in their jobs. Consider asking your team members the following questions:
What do you need from me to be successful?
What do you need from the rest of the team to be successful?
What are the biggest challenges?
Make it a habit to frequently ask these questions, and avoid asking things like “do you need anything from me?” or “are there any challenges?” Those questions lead to yes/no answers and discourage deeper dialogue.
Assume that your team members DO have needs and challenges (and don’t be afraid to ask them what they are)! It may take time for your team to give you their full feedback, but using the other two elements of ART (Authenticity + Trust), the resources will help keep it all together.
The success of any relationship–personal or professional–hinges on trust. And the need for trust grows when we expand beyond a 1-1 relationship, such as a team. If you want your team to feel empowered, they need to know they have your trust. Do you think your employees know you trust them? Your instinct might be yes, but I challenge you to consider if your interactions with them actually express that trust (and build it).
If your team member approaches an issue or challenge, consider telling them how much you trust them to find the right solution. This may sound simple, but actually hearing the words can have a profound impact on your team member’s confidence.
In another approach, when you’re brainstorming possible actions to take on a project, can you pause to let your team members make suggestions before you? It’s easy to get stuck thinking our colleagues don’t know what to do when, in fact, we’re so busy telling them what to do that there’s no space for their ideas. To really empower your team, make it your job to help them explore solutions vs. just telling them solutions.
Finally, think about what happens after you’ve empowered your team member to act. Do you acknowledge and celebrate their success? And if things don’t go so well, can you create space for them to process their mistakes with you and build more authenticity and trust in the process? Perhaps you even self reflect on what resources could lead to success in the future. Remember, you’re always learning here too.
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