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The term “Empowerment” has been bandied about for several decades – much before Agile approaches became popular. With Agile and self-managed teams, empowerment has almost become a sacred mantra at both a team level as well as in an organizational context. Yet, when you speak to different experts, you will hear different perspectives / interpretations of what true empowerment means, how it works and what its implications are. My attempt here is to provide perspectives learned from my experience – both from working in corporate environments, as well as a coach in helping organizations transform to agile ways of working.

Defining Empowerment at a high level

Empowerment in a team context is about a philosophy that focuses on giving teams (and the associates the team comprises of) the autonomy, resources and support to act independently and be held accountable for the decisions they make. In this case teams do not wait for managers to give them directions. In a sense enabling self-managed teams in an agile context requires teams to feel empowered in order to be effective. An important enabler in this process is the environment that the leadership provides so associates and teams feel “empowered” to make decisions.

Empowerment is about providing an environment

The key takeaway from the above definition is the fact that empowerment is about providing an environment that allows people to take decisions fearlessly. Recall Principle 5 from the Agile manifesto that stresses on this – “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get it done”

Empowerment is a balance between leaders’ ability to let go and employees’ willingness to take it

Providing an empowering environment is not easy – often tricky in some way. Leaders are giving up control that they once had, with employees willing to take it, once leaders are inclined to and ready. Getting this balance takes time and invariably comes from the organization’s leadership culture.

Leaders are often hesitant to create an empowering environment

There are some obvious reasons why leaders are hesitant to give up control and facilitate an empowering environment. Some of these include:

  • Lack of understanding and effort to make it happen – empowerment requires understanding of what it takes as well as the huge effort that is required to transform oneself in the process
  • Fear of losing their positional authority – when your reportees start taking decisions, there is a fear that you might become redundant in the future.
  • Being vague on what they want – more often than not managers ask employees to “be empowered” without being clear on what they expect or want in the process
  • Perception of employees not being ready to take important decisions – while this may be true in some cases, it is often unfounded since the only way to prepare employees for the future is by allowing them to take decisions and learn from them

Empowerment is not “given” but “taken”

It’s often a misconception with empowerment that it is “given”. A related principle that Extreme Programming talks about is “Accepted Responsibility”. In essence, responsibility is never given but taken for it to be effective, because, with accepted responsibility comes ownership. So, telling someone “You are empowered” will often not work. And empowerment will be “taken” only when there is an empowering environment.

Empowerment promotes cross-functional working and cross skilling

When you provide an environment and support for empowerment, functional boundaries for working often go away because employees are no longer waiting for you as their manager to help with cross functional working. They take the required ownership and initiative and roles do not become a constraint for achieving team or organizational goals. In the process, you also facilitate cross skilling of employees.

An empowering environment develops leaders for the future

This is somewhat obvious since an environment that nurtures empowerment allows employees to take decisions fearlessly and, more importantly, learn from it and grow. In the process, it develops them to face higher-level challenges such as organizational growth, competition and market leadership/

On the other hand, non-empowering environments are impoverished for leaders and this will lead to the organization’s failure in the long run.

Being Agile versus Doing Agile

  • You find teams with the required mindset for implementing agile in spirit as opposed to going through the mechanics of processes
  • The Leadership supports teams to ensure agile is implemented effectively

In summary, providing an open and trustworthy environment, involving teams in decisions that impact them and providing them the required support in autonomous working and decision making are all vital elements of empowerment. All these go a long way in improving the sense of belonging to the organization and ownership of associates and teams. This, in turn, improves productivity and drives creativity and innovation, both of which contribute to higher value for the customer, and to the organization’s long-term vitality.