“Empowerment” in many organizations is one of those empty, HR-y words, a bland truism that no-one disagrees with (no one says, “I’m against empowerment”) but which means little and changes nothing.
And it drives me nuts.
Because empowerment taken seriously is a courageous and radical act.
- Empowerment means inviting people to take full responsibility for their work.
- Empowerment means disrupting and sharing power and inviting people into the spotlight.
- Empowerment means people being seen and being heard. Empowerment is an opportunity for people to find and be their best self.
So how do we get back to the nitty gritty of what empowering others as a leader truly means?
We break it down to basics.
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What Does It Mean to Empower Others?
The traditional organizational hierarchy is kind of anti-empowerment when you think about it.
It’s a structure that tells you where you rank and how much power you wield. Obviously, when you’re at the top, you have more power, and when you’re at the bottom, you have less.
Unfortunately, this approach to organizational life tends to pull us away from our humanity because it sets up work to be painfully transactional.
The leader tells their subordinates what to do, uses their authority to influence how they behave, and has the final say over important things like pay and performance appraisals.
Think about it, when you’re the one offering up guidance, you’re positioning yourself as the person in control. You “one up” yourself and you “one down” them – to coin a phrase from Edgar Schein – whether you mean to or not.
Coaching, on the other hand, shifts the responsibility for figuring stuff out and getting stuff done back to the other person involved. It’s all about empowering people to think independently, boost their autonomy, and unlock their greatness.
Empowering Others Is Uncomfortable (And Rewarding!)
For all its awesome benefits, coaching is often resisted because most of us have deep habits about offering up solutions and advice. We’re used to being rewarded for knowing the answer.
There’s an inherent comfort in the role of answer-giver, of being “one up”. It’s a safe space compared to the vulnerability of asking questions.
When you’re the one providing answers, you hold the power and orchestrate the conversation’s trajectory. You get to relish being the intelligent contributor in the dialogue.
On the other hand, questioning involves a subtle blow to the ego.
You relinquish the reins of the conversation to the other person. Now, they bear the responsibility of responding. Doubt starts to creep in. You’re not even sure if it is a good question; if they understood the question; what answer they’re going to give!
Effectively, you’ve given up status, rank, certainty, control, and power, while prioritizing another person’s aspirations and potential. And isn’t that what empowerment is all about?
See, when you empower somebody, you have to step out of the spotlight and put the focus on helping them unlock their full potential.
And from a selfish standpoint, empowering your team has a lot of benefits for future you, too.
Think of it this way. Helping people become better is kind of like upgrading to a new phone.
You’re building skills, you’re building capacity, you’re building capability. People literally start rewiring themselves to think bigger and become the next best versions of who they are.
So, even though empowering people can feel scary and challenging at first, in the long run everyone reaps the rewards.
10 Ways to Empower Others as a Leader
Empowering others starts by developing a consistent coaching habit.
So, here are 10 ways you can start incorporating effective coaching into your daily routine.
1. Practice Fierce Love
Psychological safety is a huge part of employee retention and wellbeing.
That being said, I also think that some companies are at risk of creating environments that are too soft and too delicate. Yes, you want your team to feel safe and supported. But you also want to encourage psychological bravery – or fierce love.
The fierceness is what cuts through the softness. You’re saying: “I’m not going to butter you up or lie to you. I’m going to do what I can to push you to the edge of who you can be.”
This is where the concept of safe, vital, and repairable relationships from How to Work With (Almost) Anyone comes in:
- Safe is about removing fear.
- Vital means constructing a working relationship with the right combination of support and challenge.
- Repairable speaks to the reality that all relationships have some degree of fragility and will have moments of being both cracked (damaged from within) and dented (damaged from without).
“Safe” and “vital” are all well and good, but if they crumble at the slightest injury, then the relationship lacks resilience. This is why relationships need all three factors – because if they do crumble, they need to be able to be repaired.
2. Make Sure They’re Doing Great Work
You can think of all the work people do as falling into three buckets – Bad Work, Good Work and Great Work.
These aren’t labels of quality, but of meaning and impact.
- Bad Work is work that’s pointless, meaningless, a waste of time and energy. It’s the kind of work that makes people feel like they don’t have an impact. Eventually, they resign themselves to feeling like a small meaningless cog in a huge, heartless machine.
- Good Work is solid, productive, important – but not anything they’re particularly thrilled, excited or stretched by doing. It’s your people at 6.5/10, not 9/10.
- Great Work is the work that’s meaningful, important, and makes a difference. It’s the work that makes people smile and say: “This is why I signed up for this job in the first place. This is what I want to be doing.”
As a leader, you need to create the focus, the space, and the resilience to empower your people to do more great work. And to do it, curiosity is key.
3. Tell Less, Ask More
Great work looks different for everyone. And even if you think you know what your people should be doing, the truth is you probably don’t.
To unlock greatness and empower your people, you need to rethink how you engage with others by becoming a connoisseur of seven powerful questions.
These questions hold the golden ticket to helping people learn, grow, and find meaning.
In my book The Coaching Habit I discuss the seven essential questions you need to be more coach-like as a leader:
- “What’s on your mind?”
- “And what else?”
- “What’s the real challenge here for you?”
- “What do you (really) want (from me)?”
- “How can I help?”
- “If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?”
- “What was most useful for you?
Asking the question is only the first step towards empowerment. To really create the space for growth, you need to learn to get comfortable with silence.
Don’t let your discomfort with a heartbeat or two of awkwardness get in the way of someone having the space to think about and answer the question.
Ask the question, then shut up – that’s where the magic happens.
4. Raise the TERA Quotient
Every five seconds, our brains scan the environment and ask themselves, “Is this a safe space, or are there dangers lurking?”
When we’re in the safe zone, our minds do this incredible dance of creativity, insights, and wisdom. But when it senses danger, fear creeps in, engagement drops, and any chances of higher thinking vanish into thin air.
To empower your people, you need them to stay in that place of inspiration and openness. They need to view interactions with you as a place of reward, not risk.
So, how do you do it? It all comes down to Tribe, Expectation, Rank, and Autonomy – the four heavyweight influencers of how social situations unfold.
- Tribe is all about whether the brain thinks you’re on the same side or not. If it feels your loyalty, the TERA quotient gets a boost.
- Expectation is about the brain deciphering if it can predict what’s up ahead. Crystal-clear expectations mean safety.
- Rank? Well, it’s not solely about your title – it’s about the power game. The brain’s wondering, “Are you a bigger fish or a smaller one?” Lower my status, and the safety level dips.
- Autonomy – that’s a biggie, and Daniel Pink nailed it in his brilliant book Drive. It’s about the brain asking, “Do I have a say here?” Feeling a sense of choice amps up the reward factor in a situation.
Your role as an empowering leader is to amp up that TERA quotient whenever possible.
What’s the easiest way of doing this? By asking questions like “What’s on your mind?” It’s like the secret sauce for increasing TERA.
5. See Them and Recognize Their Contributions
I learned a lot from The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile, which reinforces that people feel empowered when they make ongoing progress on stuff that matters.
Leaders can easily use this principle to their advantage. You see, a simple and powerful way to empower your people is to help them make progress, notice this progress and celebrate their achievements.
Being generous with praise and giving credit where credit is due is a great way to boost the TERA quotient and make your people feel seen and heard.
Importantly, how you celebrate will depend on the individual. Every one of us relates to a different love language:
- Words of affirmation
- Physical touch
- Quality time
- Acts of service
I get that the concept can sound a little woo-woo, but it’s really helpful to reflect on how different people like to receive praise.
Some of your team members might crave public recognition, while for others a gift card could make their day. Be sure to pull the right lever to help your people feel good about themselves.
6. Tame Your Advice Monster
All of you know your advice monster.
Somebody starts telling you about something and even though you don’t really know the situation or the people involved and you certainly don’t have the full context, after about 10 seconds your advice monster is like, “Oh, oh, oh, I’ve got something to say here.”
In that moment when your advice monster is speaking, it’s saying that you are better than the other person and that they’re not good enough.
But it’s not only the other person that is diminished – you are, too. You’ve lost that connection to your humanity, to your empathy, to your compassion, and to your sense of vulnerability.
To avoid the advice trap, what you want to do is replace your advice-giving habit with a new habit – staying curious. It’s as simple – and as difficult – as that.
Questions are the kindling of curiosity. When you’re able to stay curious, you begin to empower people not by giving them the answer but by helping them find their own answer – not by rescuing them but by helping them find their own path.
7. Start Fast…
Contrary to conventional wisdom, coaching employees shouldn’t be this formal, lengthy act.
Any conversation can be more coach-like. The trick is to dive in. For example, at the start of a meeting, instead of getting stuck in one of those “my-life-is-ticking-away-while-we-chat-about-the-weather” conversations, get right down to business.
Great leaders are able to get to the heart of an issue quickly. One way to do that? Ask: “What’s on your mind?”
The glory of this question is that, although open-ended, it gives the person the opportunity to bring up what they want to talk about – without offering them the option to talk about just anything.
You want to know what’s currently on their mind. And it’s probable that it’ll lead you straight to what actually matters.
You’ll also be empowering your employee, because you’re shifting the dynamic of power as you relinquish control of the conversation.
This approach doesn’t apply only to set meetings – you can throw out this question in most encounters. It doesn’t add more work to your plate, and it empowers your employees by shifting the dynamic of power.
8. …And Finish Strong
As it turns out, people don’t really learn when you tell them what to do – they learn when they reflect on what has happened.
And what that means is that asking a question after a discussion will inspire new learning opportunities – more than the discussion itself did.
To finish strong and encourage learning, make things stick by asking the learning question: “What was most useful for you?”
Not only does it provide you with feedback, but it also encourages your employee to find value in the conversation, leaving them feeling that the interaction was useful.
When both parties walk away believing that the conversation was valuable, they’re more likely to maintain a positive relationship.
9. Actually Listen Actively
The Coaching Habit’s fifth question is the Lazy Question – “how can I help?”
Now, I realize that question sounds at odds with being lazy. Because surely it invites someone to give you a long, detailed list of activities they’d like you to complete.
But, paradoxically, asking how you can help boosts autonomy because it slows you down.
What you’re primed to do is leap to action. You go through the motions of active listening, nodding and looking interested and encouraging, but the truth is you’re just waiting for them to stop talking so you can offer up your idea, your solution, your insight, your suggested next step.
But the thing you think they need and want is so often not quite the thing they actually need and want.
You think you know what they want. They may think they know what they want. But the truth is that, often, until the question is explicitly asked and answered, neither of you is entirely clear.
10. Keep Practicing
A survey by Harvard Business Review asked people to self-identify what style of leader they are from eight possible choices.
The top pick at 23% was collaborator – described as “empathetic, team-building, talent-spotting, coaching-oriented.”
But honestly, I’d observe that a lot of leaders are terrible at being coaching-oriented. Just as doctors only wait about 18 seconds before interrupting their patients, most managers move into advice-giving, solution-prompting, and answer-offering mode almost instantly.
When you’re in a conversation, notice how quickly you and the people around you trade curiosity for giving advice. You’ll be shocked at how quickly it happens.
Of course, when we feel the pressure to get things done, it’s all too easy to default to giving advice and providing solutions, but practice makes perfect.
Adapting the principles and practices of building a coaching habit may be a little uncomfortable at first — for you and for the people you lead — but the upshot is you’ll work less hard, have more impact, and empower them to be the best they can be.
Want to learn more about empowering others that you work with? Then check out my latest book – How to Work With (Almost) Anyone.