Leaders accept and act on the paradox of power: you become more powerful when you give your own power away. Long before empowerment was written into the popular vocabulary, exemplary leaders understood how important it was for their constituents to feel strong, capable, and efficacious. Constituents who feel weak, incompetent, and insignificant will consistently underperform; they want to flee the organization and are ripe for disenchantment, even revolution.
People who are not confident about their power, regardless of their organizational position or place, tend to hoard whatever shreds of influence they have. Powerless managers tend to adopt petty and dictatorial styles. Powerlessness also creates organizational systems in which political skills are essential, and "covering your backside" and "passing the buck" are the preferred modes of handling interdepartmental differences.
Feeling powerful--feeling "able"--comes from a deep sense of being in control of your own life. People everywhere share this fundamental need. When you feel able to determine your own destiny, when you believe you are able to mobilize the resources and support necessary to complete a task, then you will persist in your efforts to achieve. But when you feel controlled by others, when you believe that you lack support or resources, you show little commitment to excel. Even though you may comply, you still realize how much more you could contribute, if you wanted to.
Liz Wiseman, author and former Oracle vice president, makes similar points in her research about "Multipliers"--leaders who make everyone around them smarter--versus "Diminishers"--leaders who drain the energy and capability of those around them. Multipliers, she observes, invest in the success of others, and although they may jump in to teach and share their ideas, they always maintain the ownership and accountability that others have.
Failing to do so creates dependency, and is the way of the Diminishers. They jump in, save the day, drive results through their personal involvement, and remind everyone how much smarter and more capable they are than everyone else is or even could be. In strengthening others, leaders adopt the assumptions of Multipliers, believing in essence that "people are smart and will figure it out" and that they "will get even smarter in the process."
Any leadership practice that increases others' sense of self-determination, self-confidence, and personal effectiveness makes them more powerful and greatly enhances the possibility of their success. Self-determination can be enhanced in a number of ways, based on three core principles which ensure that people are able to decide for themselves: choice, latitude, and personal accountability.
You want people to take initiative and be self-directed. You want them to think for themselves and not continually ask someone else, "What should I do?" This ability cannot be developed if you tell people what to do and how to do it. They really can't learn to act independently unless they get to exercise some degree of choice. If they have no freedom of choice and can act only in ways prescribed by the organization, then how can they respond when the customer or another employee behaves in ways that aren't in the script? If they have to ask the "boss" what to do--even if they think they know what needs to be done and feel they could do it--then they are going to be slowing down the entire organization. And if their boss doesn't know, then the boss will have to ask his or her manager. And up the ladder it goes. The only way to create an efficient and effective organization is to give people the chance to use their best judgment in applying their knowledge and skills. This implies, of course, that you've prepared them to make these choices and that you've educated them in the guiding principles of the organization.
Consider how Aruba Networks has done away completely with its vacation policy. Like most every company, they used to spend a great deal of time and energy keeping track and reporting about vacations. Today they simply tell every employee to take his vacation when he needs it, for as long as he needs it, and the only proviso is that he has to make sure that the time off won't interfere with his work getting done. When you give people choices, they will find it harder to blame "the company" (or management) when things don't go their way or when they don't like the way things are going; because, after all, if they don't like the way something is being done, then they can do something about it--and taking initiative like this is one of the things leaders do. By providing choices, you are enabling others to lead themselves.
If you want higher levels of performance and greater initiative from your constituents, you must be proactive in designing work that allows them latitude, a close cousin of choice. To feel in control of their own work lives, people need to be able to take nonroutine action, exercise independent judgment, and make decisions that affect how they do their work, without having to check with someone else. It means being creative and flexible--liberated from a standard set of rules, procedures, or schedules. Responsive service and extra employee efforts emerge when people have the necessary leeway to meet customer needs and sufficient authority to serve customer wants.
Only adaptive individuals and organizations will thrive in today's dynamic global environment. This means you have to support more and greater individual discretion to meet the changing demands of customers, clients, suppliers, and other stakeholders. With increased discretion comes an increased ability to use and expand one's talents, training, and experience. The payoff is improved performance.
When people take personal responsibility and are held accountable for their actions, their colleagues are much more inclined to want to work with them and are more motivated to cooperate in general. Individual accountability is a critical element of every collaborative effort. Everyone has to do his or her part for a group to function effectively.
Enhancing self-determination means giving people control over their own lives. Therefore you have to give them something of substance to control and for which they are accountable.
Remember to provide the necessary resources--for example, materials, money, time, people, and information--for people to perform autonomously. There's nothing more disempowering than to have lots of responsibility for doing something but nothing to do it with. People's increased sphere of influence should be relevant to the pressing concerns and core technology of the business. Choosing the color of the paint may be a place to start, but you'd better give people influence over more substantive issues in time. For example, if quality is top priority, find ways to expand people's influence and discretion over issues of quality control.
This is an adapted excerpt from The Leadership Challenge: How To Make Extraordinary Things Happen In Organizations by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, reprinted with permission by the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Copyright (c) 2012.
[Image: Flickr user Marco Barbieri]