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How to Ensure Empowerment Doesn't Become an Act of Disempowerment

What do Google, Zappos and Disney all have in common? Yes, they’re all hugely successful companies, Rich Williams points out in his article for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. But, he goes on to say, it's more about how they became so successful. They all go to great lengths to create an environment of empowerment for their employees.

And they are not alone. More and more companies are waking up to the fact that giving employees more authority, and decision-making ability and helping them adopt the responsibility that goes with it can bring huge benefits for both the company and its workers.

In spite of its benefits, we have found that considerable confusion still abounds relative to what true empowerment is and how to actually implement it.

For starters, it’s important to understand that no one can empower anyone else. Saying the words, “I empower you to do this” may be an overt act of delegation but it certainly doesn’t provide the person with true “empowerment” because real empowerment is a personal choice each individual makes to fully engage and commit or not.

What we can do as leaders, however, is create the environment, support system and other conditions that provide a fertile field for people to willingly and powerfully accept our invitations to step into a more empowerment way of being.

Something else is also required, namely, offering realistic opportunities. And that doesn’t happen when leaders ignore the practicalities of the situation and fail to implement what we refer to in our book, Thriving in Business and Life, as the Three C’s of Empowerment: Capability, Clarity, and Commitment.

Here's a quick summary of what we mean:

1. Capability.

At this step, we need to consider how truly capable the person is of succeeding at the task or project you are inviting them to undertake. Have they demonstrated such capacity in the past?

It’s unfair to substitute affection or positive bias for actual capability and proven capacity. Taking risks and trusting others to stretch beyond their established success zone is fine, if that’s a deliberate, reasoned strategy that’s been well thought through with appropriate support systems in place to ensure you’re setting them up for success not failure. Realistic limitations are also important to take into account.

2. Clarity.

This next step requires us to get real and definitive in terms of what we truly expect. We all know what can happen when we rush into action without adequately clarifying the details of a situation.

That's why it’s important to take adequate time to ensure that everyone involved understands the tasks at hand, to establish the desired communication channels, and to clearly articulate your expectations as to deliverables, scope of authority, and time frame, etc. With complex projects it’s wise to write things down. This even applies to agreements with friends and family members. Memories change over time and relationships can suffer when conflicts develop because those involved think differently about what’s going on and misunderstand / mis-remember the agreements they made.

3. Commitment.

At this stage of assessment, we are taking a look at a person's mindset. Have they demonstrated consistent willingness to be an owner of the projects they take on in the past? If so, great! If not, another level of coaching and oversight may be required to see if they are actually game to become truly willing and able to taken on what you're inviting them to.

It's also worth noting that while nothing creates the climate for success like commitment, it’s unrealistic to expect others to commit if we haven’t. That’s the problem when we engage in delegation without inviting people to step into a role of personal empowerment. Handing off something to a team member because we simply don’t want to do it ourselves broadcasts a message: “I don’t care enough about this to do it myself so I’m asking you to.” That’s not the kind of attitude that inspires commitment in others.

Lead the way by forging your own deep commitments to every aspect of what you and your team are working on, including what you offer to others for their industrious attention. It makes all the difference in the world when your colleagues feel you are still engaged, long after you have handed something off to them.

Capability, clarity, and commitment . . . what we call The Three C’s of Empowerment, are well worth learning and remembering as you optimize your collaborative skills. Although true empowerment can’t be given, it can be inspired, and there’s not much that’s as attractive and compelling as an empowered person who is truly enjoying what they are doing.

As leaders, we can implement true empowerment by ensuring that our expectations and support align with each person's actual or readily attained capability; that the people we lead are crystal clear as to what success looks like and what it means for them, their team, and the organization; and that they understand where they can get the support they need in challenging times in order to maintain the level of commitment required to for them to consistently be at their best.

Here’s your Thriving challenge for the week:

Consider some aspect of your working life where you have not felt as fully empowered as you could. Empower yourself, using the Three Cs formula. Check in with yourself as to how capable you are to carry out your current assignment (is more training or coaching needed); how clear you are in regard to the essential details and expectation of the project you’ve taken on (is more clarity needed); and how committed you are to deliver excellent results even in the face of challenges (what are the consequences of succeeding or failing at this particular stage)?

Once you’re clear, invite those who are involved with you to join you in an Empowerment Assessment and see how you might encourage and challenge each other to step up to another level of True Empowerment.

Will Wilkinson and Christopher Harding

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