Empowerment is a perennial leadership topic. It’s easy to find a lot of studies that demonstrate that empowered employees perform better and business metrics improve – but I honestly think it is so important because it really sucks to feel powerless. I use the word ‘sucks’ in the colloquial sense, and the metaphoric sense, because feeling powerless sucks a lot of energy from us. And leaders are often experiencing it themselves by feeling powerless when it comes to empowering their people.
When a business leader comes to coaching asking “how do I empower my people more?” – I like to slow them down and start with “who empowers your people?” As a leader, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking it is your job, or even that it is possible for a leader to empower their people. But that is to create empowerment as something you do ‘to’ your people. Forcing someone to be empowered is the opposite of empowerment – it’s manipulation and disempowering.
Sometimes they see it right away, but if not I ask “who empowers you?” – to which the most common answer is “no one, I empower myself.” Yes, the most powerful empowerment comes from within, not from someone else. So if we start with the working hypothesis that people empower themselves, and people prefer to be empowered, it starts to become clear that what we are really looking for is whatever it is that is getting in the way.
So the question shifts to “what is getting in the way?” – and again I like to slow the leader down and ask “who would know best what is getting in the way for a particular person?” What starts to become obvious is that a conversation about empowerment can be very empowering for both the leader and team member when a leader approaches it from the frame of reference that everyone is naturally creative, resourceful and whole – and empowers or disempowers themselves.
Suddenly it becomes a conversation about empowerment – including the real source of empowerment along with what and who gets in the way – instead of the latest corporate initiative. It can be a very illuminating and empowering conversation for people because sometimes they too are under the impression that it is the leader’s job and responsibility to empower them.
When a leader and their people are clear about the real source of empowerment and whose responsibility it is, it starts to become obvious that what is required are more conversations. As Gregg Thompson writes “most leaders don’t have enough conversations with the people in their teams or their companies, and especially not conversations that are focused solely on those people. Leaders need to value conversation more, recognizing it as the lifeblood of their organizations. Conversations are to organizations as blood is to the body. If it stops flowing, the body dies.”
What I love about the power of conversation and inquiry is the possibility of the participants being the very thing they are inquiring into it – in this case, empowered. I often ask how the leader is feeling at the end of the conversation, and when they check-in, they notice they feel more empowered. I check-in too, and see that I feel more empowered by the reminder that it’s not my job to empower anyone, but myself. I notice that same feeling as I finish this blog post. How about you?