Managers can easily relate to this experience: You ask an employee to carry out a task that has enough flexibility for creative input. Rather than making their own decisions, the employee comes to you with a flurry of questions, trying to pin down the exact parameters of the task. You become frustrated as the Manager, wondering why the employee has to ask you permission for every tiny detail.
This isn’t an unusual phenomenon – it can be difficult to break out of the ‘leader-follower’ mindset at the workplace. The leader-follower mindset is one of the characteristics of ‘Directive’ leadership. In fact, researchers from Penn State, Claremont McKenna College, and Tsinghua University, find that only rare, ‘transformational leaders’ are able to prevent employees from being excessively reliant on their bosses. Transformational leaders cultivate a team, that feels empowered and self-guided. Trust and business acumen are some of the cornerstones in building this type of work culture. We can use this wisdom to train informed and decisive teams that we can trust.
Empowerment is a common term that we hear a lot about in leadership. Empowerment is based on the belief, that employees have the ability – and want to take on more responsibility. Empowerment is a way to give employees greater authority, and responsibility to take care of the needs of the customer, and to provide employees with the means for making influential decisions. Empowerment is defined as “the giving or delegation of power or authority; the giving of an ability, enablement or permission.”
Empowered employees understand their role in supporting the vision by taking care of the needs of the customers. Joseph Juran (one of the early quality gurus) defined empowerment as “conferring the right to make decisions and take action.”
Like many others, I have experienced both these styles of leadership. During my early sales career, I was employed by a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) organization and hence meeting retailers and persuading them to stock company’s products and promoting them was an everyday routine. I would go on ‘market beats’ and cover specific territories and distributors or retailers in the market area. The sales leader would accompany me in those market beats and demonstrate how the calls needed to be scripted. There was a sales call flow and I would need to adhere to every word in the script. I was given the impression that sales would come in, only if the script was followed to the hilt. I did the job as per the prescription suggested, but never quite enjoyed it. I was told what I had to do, and could not deviate from the suggested course. Creativity was the last word and there was an air of uncertainty around creativity, since it does not obviously guarantee success and results. There was no scope for me or the peers in my team, to alter the way work was being carried out, despite knowing fully well that all of us had ‘individual’ styles that were perhaps equally effective if not better. Often enough, I felt that I would be more motivated to contribute if my selling style was adopted (perhaps with some modifications) and given an opportunity to produce sales results. The leader’s style was clearly directive and ‘suffocating’ to say the least.
However, I begun to sense and experience a different style of leadership altogether as time moved on – a style that was more empowering, democratic and less authoritarian. This style of leadership placed more emphasis on ‘individualism’ and ‘creativity’ while it enabled the progress towards organizational and business goals. Research indicates that ‘motivation to act on a solution is the maximum when the solution comes from within oneself’ and I could clearly see for myself the implications of this research. It was heartening to see positive results based on my ‘own’ crafted approach and the flexibility that it offered. I was also able to experience a greater sense of accountability since it was my approach and the onus of producing results rested only on me. The core style would be mine whereas subtle adjustments were prompted by the leader to fine-tune the approach. This would be done in an ‘empowering’ way, following a consensus oriented and facilitative approach.
How do we then develop an empowering culture?
Encourage in-the-moment feedback
Instant, on-the-spot feedback is one way for your team to communicate issues and seek resolution
Cultivate the ‘executive’ mentality
Enable team members to see the big picture
Present new challenges and opportunities
Important to challenge employees so that they can demonstrate and achieve their full potential
Respect their boundaries
Important to let employees remain focused on their roles
Give Them Flexibility
Let employees drive workflow and processes
Create room for independent work and decision making
Empowering culture builds a team that contributes based on trust, camaraderie, self-motivation, and achievement. It also enables the leader to fulfil the organizational vision and focus on the larger picture since team members perform at their creative best in a free and flexible manner. Over a period of time, this translates into a much superior performance as team members feel that they have ample room to experiment without the need to bother about ‘threats’ and ‘pressures’. Quality of life in organizations is often determined based on the levels of empowerment or the lack of it and this paves the way for greater productivity, innovation, and superior standards in society and environment.