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5 ways to create an empowered workplace in 2021

The former co-CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill says most leaders know empowerment will lead to happier, more motivated employees, and thus improved business results, but they don’t know how to create it.

5 ways to create an empowered workplace in 2021
[Photo: Jakayla Toney/Unsplash]
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In order to be a great leader, you must learn to empower your people. Anytime you see a poorly run restaurant, retail store, or organization, empowerment is the missing ingredient. Anytime you see a super well-run business, that’s very likely the secret to their success.

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As I define it: Empowerment means feeling confident in your ability, and encouraged by your circumstances, such that you feel motivated and at liberty to fully devote your talents to a purpose.

Most leaders acknowledge that this quality will lead to happier, more motivated employees, and thus improved business results, but they don’t know how to create empowerment.

Being a hard worker isn’t enough to empower teams. It can only be accomplished by a leader who takes the time to know, understand, and care about their employees. Just as one cannot force someone to love another person, a leader cannot force anyone on their team to feel confident, encouraged, and motivated.

In my years leading Chipotle, finding ways to create this feeling in our people was my top priority, as it was the most powerful way to lead our company to extraordinary results. I learned there are five key actions that create this type of culture, and as I look around at the business landscape, I see too few leaders following these principles. The result, unfortunately, is teams that are not operating at their best.

Connect with your people

People feel most encouraged when in the presence of someone who loves them, supports them, and is committed to helping them be the very best version of themselves. For that reason, the first step to empowering your people is connecting with them.

Connection has become increasingly important as many workplaces have gone remote this year. Todd McKinnon, CEO and cofounder of Okta, shared how he’s reallocated time to connect with his team despite the distance. He’s working more closely with the C-suite and personally onboarding new additions. He answers anonymous questions from employees during all-hands meetings, hosted an AMA to address the company’s response to COVID-19, and did a listening tour to discuss Okta’s support for Black Lives Matter with his employees.

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These actions send a loud and clear message: I see you, I hear you, and I care about you. Connection is easy to recognize but hard to define. It is something you can just feel. The feeling is warm, feels inclusive, and safe. Sometimes, with people who are shy, or slow to trust, it takes considerable time to make a connection. Other times, the connection is nearly instant and takes little to no effort. No matter what style of person a leader is confronted with, a sincere effort to really connect is meaningful and important.

Inspire them with a vision

Few things are more discouraging than spending hours of your life on meaningless work, while not many things are more encouraging than having a real, meaningful impact. So a key part of empowering your employees is inspiring them with a vision.

To be inspiring, a vision has to be worthy of a person’s effort. It must be more than something that the leader wants to accomplish for themselves. The vision has to be something that, once achieved, makes a real difference in the life of the person being asked to achieve it.

Inspiring someone requires more than merely sharing the vision. It requires explaining how a person fits into the vision, how it will affect them, and how achieving it will help them to advance a part of their life that is important to them.

When I think of vision, I think of Omaze. In their offices, there’s a wall lined with childhood photos of all the employees. This is a reminder to the team to “bring their inner child to work every day” said cofounder and CEO Matt Pohlson. The imagination and ability to dream big that we possess as children are necessary for the team to carry out the company’s vision of “dream the world better.” How else do you come up with once-in-a-lifetime experiences like having a walk-on role in Star Wars or being handed Lamborghini keys by Pope Francis?

Research shows that leaders who inspire, ignite people’s imaginations, and mobilize them with a compelling vision are more impactful than managers who simply focus on the bottom line.

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Instill confidence in your people

To be empowered, your people must feel confident in what they are doing, and they must understand how they fit into and are a critical part of, the overall team. You can instill confidence in two major ways.

First, acknowledge great work. If you don’t tell your people when they are doing things well, how are they supposed to grow confident in their abilities? Second, seek to challenge your people with new tasks and trust them to take more and more responsibility. People thrive on being challenged and being entrusted with more. As long as they are not pushed beyond their capabilities, this creates more confidence.

One great way to do this is to start making leaders out of your team members. Give them a specific responsibility to achieve, and ask them to organize a group of people to achieve it. Help them to become leaders in their own right, and teach them the methods of empowering the people whose assistance they call upon to achieve their goals.

When you ask more of your team and help guide them to success, they can feel their own growth and advancement, which instills confidence. A good leader is always looking for opportunities to do this.

Teach them to make each other better

Having an empowered culture means everyone shares this feeling. Creating such a culture is difficult if one leader has to do it all by themselves. You must teach every person on the team how to make the people around them better.

To accomplish this, teach each person how satisfying and rewarding it is to help others and how, by doing so, they become an indispensable part of the team. The best way to do this is to identify what people’s strengths are and then challenge them to teach their strengths to others.

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You should constantly be looking for opportunities to help your people help the people around them. When I think of who shines at this, I think of VIPKid, which was named a top workplace for innovators in 2020. Erika Louie, the company’s U.S. HR Director, credits their “empowered community of passionate teachers.” One of the ways those teachers help the community is to onboard new teachers onto the platform. After all, who better to show new teachers the ropes than teachers who love their work and are using the platform every day?

When you task people with teaching others, it demonstrates your confidence in them, provides a chance for them to realize their own value to the team, teaches the task to a new person, and creates a deeper bond between the teacher and the student, which leads to a stronger team.

Share what’s going on

Have you ever discovered that someone had a party and you were not invited? Maybe you returned to school or work one day and someone said, “Wasn’t that a great party?” You ask yourself, “What party?” It’s happened to most of us, and it doesn’t feel good being left out.

As a leader, sharing with your people what is going on in the workplace means making sure no one ever has that feeling. But it’s more than that. When people are empowered, they feel like they are a critical part of the organization. They feel like an owner. Look at Tot Squad, a baby gear company that encourages all communication to happen in public, not private, so everyone is in the know. Or SquareFoot, where founder and CEO Jonathan Wasserstrum holds a twice-weekly all-hands meeting where employees can ask any questions they want and discussion of the state of the business is not only encouraged, but expected.

It is essential to treat your people like owners, so they will feel and act like owners. This means letting them know every significant development—why we’re firing someone, why we’re hiring, what other changes they can expect, and any other subjects that may affect the workplace. Everyone feels more valued when they are in the know.

A source of true power

Empowerment isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. When people feel confident, encouraged, and motivated, they are happier, more motivated, and more effective at their jobs. They become the best version of themselves while performing at their full potential.

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Creating this type of culture makes your job as the leader becomes infinitely easier. You no longer need to manage them or waste time “holding them accountable.” You can stop micromanaging and trust that your team will own what needs to be done. A culture of empowerment takes time and effort to build, but with these five steps, you can begin to build the kind of workplace that will level-up your business across the board.


Monty Moran is the former coCEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill. Prior to joining Chipotle, he was head of litigation and then managing partner and CEO at the Denver-based law firm of Messner and Reeves, LLC.