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Hackernoon logoOn Team Empowerment: Can You Release Control? by@vinitabansal

On Team Empowerment: Can You Release Control?

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@vinitabansalVinita Bansal

Technology enthusiast, passionate about building great teams and scaling organisations

How can we transform from the command and control style to leveraging the power of self-direction that energises and engages people? 

Empowering teams by giving up control is not easy. The fear that others are not capable and lack the required amount of clarity to make the best decision interferes with our ability to relinquish control. 

Creating an illusion of control is even worse. It makes people believe that they are responsible for taking decisions and delivering on outcomes while not feeling empowered to do so. Our lack of trust can get in the way as we demand approval every step of the way, interfere with decisions and question their judgment.

Responsibility without empowerment leads to conflict. It makes people act in undesirable ways causing resentment, confusion and can even be a source of stress and anxiety in the team.

Empowering teams is then not a matter of intent but rather how we put that intent to action. It’s the shift in mindset from “I am responsible for making the best decisions” to “I am responsible for developing people who can make the best decisions”. 

As L. David Marquet describes in Turn The Ship Around, the important question to ask is - Would I be willing to be vulnerable to the effects of their decision?

It requires patience, time, energy and perseverance to not let disappointment and failure pull us back. Instead of reverting to old mechanisms, we need to use these moments of failures and setbacks to learn and keep pushing ahead.

Before diving into how to empower teams to achieve high performance and excellence, it’s important to recognise signs of a powerless team. These signs should serve as guidance during the change process to devise new strategies for improvement. 

Signs of a powerless team 

Lack of ownership in a team reflects in how the team behaves, makes decisions, collaborates, performs and even takes on challenges. Some of the common signs of a powerless team are:

  1. People are terrified to make mistakes. They play safe by sticking to existing solutions and hide errors with the fear of being punished 
  2. They do as they are told and do not dare to go beyond the assigned tasks in effect ignoring activities that need their attention
  3. Seek approval every step of the way with the fear that the outcome may not turn out as intended. The reluctance is not to make a decision but rather the fear of being held accountable for its consequences 
  4. Do not invest in self directed learning to build new skills as they focus on avoiding mistakes instead of becoming exceptional
  5. Shift the blame to others when things do not turn out as intended instead of taking responsibility and finding ways to learn from the situation
  6. Perform poorly without investing in the necessary tools and resources to grow 
  7. Scared to take on new projects as it requires stepping out of their comfort zone
  8. Use passive language while communicating that shows lack of confidence 
  9. They agree to disagree instead of disagree and commit which is the sign of lack of ownership

Teams that operate using these practices fundamentally adopt a more submissive style with low expectations, do as told and try to keep their head down to stay away from problems. 

Human beings are designed to find pleasure in learning and growth. So, why would anyone want to do as told?  

L. David Marquet introduced a new approach to leadership from leader-follower to leader-leader model, based on his experiences as the commander of the nuclear submarine Santa Fe. He beautifully explains in Turn The Ship Around why people in a team focus on avoiding mistakes instead of achieving excellence in their work -

Initiative is viewed with skepticism. Our suggestions are ignored. We are told to follow instructions. Our work is reduced to following a set of prescriptions. Our creativity and innovations go unappreciated. Eventually, we stop trying and just toe the line. It’s a self-reinforcing downward spiral where poor practices resulted in mistakes, mistakes resulted in poor morale, and poor morale resulted in avoiding initiative and going into a survival mode of doing only what was absolutely necessary

How can we break this cycle which restricts us to utilise the full potential of our people, put their motivation to practice by enabling them to do their best work and find joy and value through their contribution?

Empowering teams is not just lending control 

Does empowering teams signify simply passing on the control to your team to make decisions?

Passing on control without understanding if the team is ready to handle the challenges that come with taking ownership is a recipe for disaster. It’s an act of irresponsibility. 

If people in the team do not have the required knowledge and sense of purpose that drives decision making in an organisation, they will lack the ability to apply the right mental models, evaluate different options against a set of criteria to determine what’s most suited and in the best interest of the organisation. 

Without a clear understanding of the goals of the organisation, how their team contributes to those goals and the level of expertise they need to establish to be able to weigh in on different options, people in the team will end up making more mistakes. 

The uncertainty that comes from taking on responsibility without clarity of purpose and the knowledge to explore different possibilities can lead to frustration, expectation mismatch and increased job stress. 

If not handled well, it can do more harm than good and push the team to the storming stage of team development.

Empowering teams to high performance and excellence

Empowering teams involves: 

  1. Developing methods that enable the team to separate decisions they can make independently from the ones that require collaboration across different functions and groups
  2. Equipping the team with the required competence to be comfortable in stepping out of their comfort zone and challenging the status quo
  3. Providing clarity that encompasses a set of values and principles to make the best decision under the given circumstances while stating the underlying assumptions and not losing sight of the big picture 
  4. Most importantly use feedback as the necessary tool to learn and improve 

Empowerment = fn (control, competence, clarity, correction)

Implement these 4 practices to empower your team to high performance and excellence: 

1. Control - Establish your decision boundary

Not every decision can and should be made by the team. As a person who is in charge of developing the team while also driving business growth, it’s your utmost responsibility to have a clear separation of decisions that only you need to make from the ones that can be delegated to the team.

A good framework to separate the two is to make high stake, irreversible decisions yourself while letting the team take charge of other decisions that can easily be reversed in case things do not turn out as intended. 

Making a decision yourself does not mean that you ignore your team's inputs or do not involve them in the process, it simply implies that the final decision rests with you.   

A good practice is to take charge of strategic decisions as a leader and pass on executional decisions to your team. While strategy and tactics belong together, it’s much harder to change a strategy than tactics which offers a lot of flexibility to make the strategy successful. 

Once the boundary for control is established by having a clear separation of the type of decisions that the team is empowered to make, take time to provide that clarity to your team. Upfront investment in providing this clarity can save a lot of time by avoiding confusion and misalignment of expectations that come from lack of it. 

As John C. Maxwell puts in The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork - “It's better to prepare than to repair.”

2. Competence - Build on strengths  

Control requires equipping your team with the required competence to make informed decisions. 

It involves asking these questions:

  1. Where does my team stand now?
  2. What are the strengths of individual team members?
  3. How can I leverage their strengths?
  4. What are the gaps in their knowledge to evaluate different choices?
  5. Does my team know and acknowledge these gaps?
  6. How can I enable my team to develop the necessary skills to be effective in their role?

John C. Maxwell highlights the importance of utilising strengths in The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork -

Good things happen to a team when a player takes the place where he adds the most value. Great things happen when all the players on the team take the role that maximizes their strengths—their talent, skill, and experience.

Create a culture of learning by developing a growth mindset in the team - mentor on how to approach new skills with an active dose of curiosity, treat every opportunity as a chance to learn by asking “what does this teach me about myself”, develop an attitude to expand their perspectives by asking open ended questions and listen intently to learn new mental models. 

Build competence by not only preaching but putting your intent to action. The best way to enable learning in the team is to define goals together, but then letting the team figure out how to implement those goals. 

Devise guidelines for good practices to follow, but do not dictate on how to put them into practice. Letting the team imbibe the message by building their own mechanisms to play it out is a way to build competence in the team. 

3. Clarity - Define guiding principles

Clarity encompasses a set of values and principles that the team uses to make decisions. Embracing these values and principles requires a strong understanding of organisation purpose, team goals, responsibility that comes with freedom and the role every individual plays in building this clarity. 

Leaders are not entirely responsible to give clarity to their people. We need to shift from top-down leadership to bottoms up in which people in the team demand the clarity that they need to be effective in their role.

While a leaders responsibility is to set clear boundaries, help tie the team goals to the vision and mission of the organisation, provide the necessary tools at their disposal, establish desired behaviours and provide psychological safety in which people do not fear their actions and use mistakes as an opportunity to learn, what matters is how the team puts this information to use.

Observe your team’s behaviour in their day-to-day work: 

  1. Do people in your team speak up and demand clarity?
  2. How do they respond to requests coming their way?
  3. Do they feel empowered to say no to work that does not align with their goals?
  4. How do they evaluate the effectiveness of an idea? Do they succumb to groupthink or find it necessary to voice their opinion?

Clarity in itself is not sufficient. Behaviours need to change as well. People in the team need to act first in line with the principles and values they want to embrace. With time, these actions will regulate their thinking and help them adapt to new ways of driving decision making within the team.

4. Correction - Enable learning and growth mindset

Eventually a team cannot strive for high performance and excellence without building in the feedback loop to learn from their decisions.

Striving to be better requires embracing a growth mindset in which every situation is viewed as an opportunity to learn something new, failures push us to develop new skills and mistakes can teach us to evaluate second order consequences of our decisions.  

When things work out well, we take the credit for making the right decision. However, when outcomes are not inline with our expectations, we blame it on others or circumstances. 

Annie Duke in Thinking In Bets succinctly explains how our cognitive biases prevent us from thinking clearly - 

When we work backward from results to figure out why those things happened, we are susceptible to a variety of cognitive traps, like assuming causation when there is only a correlation, or cherry-picking data to confirm the narrative we prefer. We will pound a lot of square pegs into round holes to maintain the illusion of a tight relationship between our outcomes and our decisions

Breaking the safety net and striving to do better every day requires the discipline and mental toughness to accept the outcome of our decisions and be able to attribute them to the right reasons - success does not mean you were right and the failure does not mean you were wrong. 

Using the strategies from our past success to drive future decisions without attributing them correctly is doomed to failure. 

Empowering teams is not delegate and forget. It’s delegate and follow-through. Be part of the team when it’s time to make corrections and guide them to learn from their mistakes.  

Empowering teams is a commitment to accept vulnerability, being responsible for the decisions of your team even though you do not make those decisions and the deep dedication to do whatever it takes to bring out the best in your people. 

Do you feel empowered to empower others around you?

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