How to Truly Empower Your Teams

We speak a lot about empowerment, but for some reason it seems more difficult to achieve it than you would expect. This article describes the vicious spiral that brings us constantly back into our old habits and how to break out of it.

What is blocking empowerment?

Managers want to empower their teams, but there are apparently certain blocking factors in place that make it difficult. This is quite surprising if we consider that both sides have a common interest here: leaders wish to delegate more and team wish to have more decision autonomy. In addition, roles and responsibilities are usually well defined in job descriptions and through delegations of authority, which define what decisions can be taken at what level in the organization. So what is causing this dysfunctional pattern in or organizations that make it so difficult to empower teams?

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The vicious spiral

I believe that there is a vicious spiral in place that is operating against this desire to delegate. The way this vicious spiral operates is not very visible and we therefore let it go on. To achieve this change in our organization and allow people to take responsibility at the appropriate level, we need to break this spiral. The vicious spiral has 3 steps.

Step 1 of the vicious spiral – Delegation up

Employees are often inclined to delegate responsibility up, because that is more comfortable. “If my boss decides, she or he will also be accountable for the outcomes of that decision and if anything goes wrong, I can’t be blamed.” Even those who claim that they would like to have more autonomy and decision rights in their jobs, will be tempted to delegate up, when an important or risky decision needs to be taken.

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Step 2 of the vicious spiral – Managers rush into problem solving mode

Managers we are trained to be excellent problem solvers. They want to be as efficient as possible. Time matters. Instead of questioning, if the decision should really be taken at their level, managers therefore rush into problem solving mode.

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Step 3 of the vicious spiral – Request for information and analysis

But in order to be able to make the right decisions, managers need to understand the local context and requirements. And so they will ask their teams for more information and they will request more detailed analysis concerning certain aspects.

This is often perceived by the teams as an overkill of headquarter requests, which keep the local teams away from their duties. But in reality it is just the logical consequence of the previous two steps of the vicious spiral. The local teams had all the necessary understanding of the situation to take the decision efficiently at their level.

It is only the delegation up to a level where that local understanding is not available that is triggering these top down requests that often become a real burden for the organization.

The vicious spiral is self-reinforcing

It is important to understand, that this vicious spiral is self-reinforcing, because the more data and analysis management is requesting, the more employees in the organization believe that it was right that they did not decide at their level. People will conclude that “if management is taken the topic so seriously, it would certainly have been wrong to deal with it lower down in the organization”. The more analysis is requested to more disempowered people feel. And therefore they will continue to delegate up….. and the spiral goes on.

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Breaking the spiral!

Instead of declaring that we want empowerment we should act. Managers should be vigilant of any situation where decisions are delegated up and check, if they need to approve or if that decision could have been taken by our teams and push back, if it is the case. We should actually make it clear that we expect team members to take their responsibility as defined in their job description and in the delegations. It is their role to check, if a decision should be escalated.

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Change the perspective

That means that we change the perspective on empowerment: The manager is not responsible to empower, but the team members are responsible to know what they are responsible for and what they really have to escalate. Making that clear is the best way to achieve this change in our organizations that we aspire for: that people are accountable and that they truly feel empowered.

More information in my book:

Sven Sommerlatte : Successful Career Strategy – An HR Practitioner’s Guide to Reach Your Dream Job (Springer, June 2023).  ISBN: 978-3-662-66790-3

Click here to find my book

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