Trapped in a Tiny Room: Why Empowerment Takes Time

Imagine that you have lived your whole life in a single small room. You have plenty of food, water, exercise equipment, even your smartphone! But your environment is constricting. Year after year, you live in the small room.

Then one day a door appears in your room, and you’re able to leave! The door leads outside, where there are woods and a river and flowers and sunshine and animals and a million things you’ve never seen before! And guess what!

You quickly shut the door and go back into your room. At least for a few minutes.

Unfamiliar freedom is scary and overwhelming. When leaders decide to empower their team members—especially team members that have been closely managed for many years—they expect the team members to run wild with their new-found freedom. They expect employees to sprint into the fields and laugh and run and discover!

But, instead, the team members often stick to their usual work processes. They may have access to new freedoms, but they don’t automatically trust or understand those new freedoms. You’re likely to see newly empowered employees continue to ask for permissions they used to need and approvals that used to be required. For the bolder employees, you might see them start to test the edges of their old processes, tentatively making decisions on their own but requiring a lot of affirmation afterwards.

If you are considering empowering a team, expanding the decisions they’re allowed to make and expecting more independence from them, here are a few tips for success:

  1. Plan ahead— How can you prepare the team before these changes are implemented? What are the team’s main concerns? Talk with them and document those concerns, being clear about how you’re going to mitigate them. Explain the outcomes you want to achieve and why empowerment is the right tool. Plan check-ins to get their feedback in the weeks and months to follow.
  2. Practice extending trust—Empowerment requires a lot of trust on both sides: you trusting your employees to make the right decisions, and the employees trusting you to back them up and give them constructive feedback when they make these new decisions.  Bring this into your one-on-ones and department meetings, talking openly about how trust is growing or being challenged in these new dynamics. Your empowerment won’t only build trust, but will also help speed up decision making.
  3. Measure progress—  What are your short-term expectations for this team? It’s easy to get excited about changes to the team’s processes, but you’ll need to focus on the learnings you’ll collect from the team and—most importantly—what success looks like. Does success mean doubling productivity overnight? Then you’re likely to be disappointed. Organizational changes tend to lower productivity while employees adjust and adapt. Does success mean the team is making decisions independently? Then track those decisions.
  4. Learn and Adjust—Let’s say you’re tracking those independent decisions. Are team members’ questions surging at first, then diminishing as they gain confidence? Great! Your plan seems to be on track. Are the team members failing to gain confidence, continuing to ask for input and approval? That’s okay too! But you need to adjust your plan to address this finding.  (Maybe interview team members about these behaviors, or pair with them on the decisions/questions instead of giving them the answer.) The data doesn’t have to be scary as long as we’re learning and adjusting our actions based on that data.

Take-Aways: Adjust your expectations for any new empowerment initiatives. Your employees will probably need time, support, and feedback to help them feel empowered. Plan ahead, extend trust, measure their progress, and adjust how you’re supporting them based on what you learn.

Questions: What have you observed in your empowerment initiatives? Have any tools proved especially helpful? What results have you seen when you empower team members?

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