WHEN EMPLOYEE EMPOWERMENT BEGINS
The third installment in the four-part series about empowerment addresses the question of “when” the process really begins. If you’re running a company or a team and believe your people could be more accountable for their work, the first step is to assess the reality of your current situation, starting with yourself. Are you doing anything that would need to change in order for your people to feel more empowered? Do you question every decision, ask to be copied on every email or insist on having final approval of most work product? Do you spend much of your time answering questions from people who really should know the answers already? Do you find yourself so busy helping other people do their work that you push your own deliverables to the side and often deliver product that’s less than your best work because you are rushing to meet deadlines? If this is you, being honest about how you feel when engaging with your staff will be a good indicator about how ready you really are to embrace empowerment and how hard it might be to change your own bad habits that are contributing to the problem.
If you find yourself frequently frustrated that you still have to get involved in projects that you used to handle on your own , or wish that you had more white-space time to work on more valuable, strategic projects, but because you are so in the weeds of the day-to-day that you can’t even begin to start something significant, you have reached the point of being ready to make some real changes in how you interact with your team. But, if deep down, it makes you feel really good when you catch a mistake in a presentation or budget, if you enjoy having an answer for every problem that someone tosses on your desk, if your primary contribution is to give direction and double check the work of others versus owning anything on your own, then you might have a tougher time cutting the cord. Some soul searching, researching and coaching from mentors you respect will help you come to terms with what you are doing to sabotage your team’s growth and allow you to create some actionable steps to make changes in how you engage with your staff.
Once you have addressed what you may need to change, then you need to assess your team. As you begin to remove yourself as the security blanket your team has come to rely on, observe how each person responds to their newfound empowerment. At first they might be both terrified and doubtful that you are really going to allow them to own a decision or project. It may take a period of consistency from you to let them to build their confidence. Then you should assess who is rising to the occasion and who really just wants to be told what to do. Not all team members really want empowerment, even if they claim they do, and it’s acceptable and expected that a certain percentage of your staff will prefer to work in teams or under closer direction. But for you to be productive and successful doing your own work, you need to surround yourself with enough people willing to take real ownership. And here’s the best part. When you’ve determined who is ready, willing and able to step up, let them pay it forward by giving them authority to support those less inclined to take on responsibility. Then take your gift of newly found white space and really make it count!
Once you have your team clicking, you keep it that way by recruiting staff that embrace empowerment. It all really begins in the hiring process. A good plan is to come up with 4-5 questions that help flush out a candidate’s natural desire to embrace responsibility. Ask them how they approach a new project. Do they prefer to work directly with their manager throughout the process to ensure they are on track, or would they rather take it on themselves and deliver the finished product? Do they prefer to work in teams or are they comfortable owning things? Asking them if they created any processes or products at previous jobs that they are particularly proud of and what lasting benefit it had will shed light on their level of enthusiasm in adding value. One of my favorite questions is “If you could wave a magic wand as you leave your current job and fix one issue that is creating problems with either process or people, what would it be and what would it solve?” Most people pursuing new employment are dissatisfied on some level at their current job and can usually articulate why. Listen to their word choices and watch their body language. Are they negative and defensive about why something is so wrong and quick to point out all the problems it creates? Do they focus most of their answer on the problem or on the solution? Do they even offer a tangible solution? If not, probe more by asking what, specifically they would do to improve the situation. Do they offer any thoughts on what, once solved, this improvement would have on productivity, profit or morale? Ask them why they couldn’t solve this problem now and you will begin to hear the faint echo of exactly the type of attitude that they will ultimately bring to the table if they were on your team. How diplomatic are they being if they share that they can’t affect change because their structure doesn’t ultimately support empowerment? If you’ve found yourself interviewing someone capable of handling this level of responsibility, if they have the experience you’re looking for, they’re the type of person you want to add to your team.