Empowering people – an ongoing journey far beyond the hand-over of a task

    Santiago G. Ponce

Anna and Lukas work in a multinational company, both in finance and they’ve been leading teams for the last four years. They report to the same manager who supervises a set of processes, framed in each of the different groups under his scope of responsibility. Lukas leads the group in charge of reporting the trading operations, whose information is of crucial importance in calculating the inventory’s changes, performed by Anna’s group.

Despite their apparent similarities, they demonstrate a pretty different mindset and behavior. Still, both claim to foster empowerment in their teams as part of the new corporate culture actively promoted by the top management.

Lukas is the kind of “helicopter” boss, as he manages by maintaining a distance and being mostly hands-off until an employee “fails.” Most of the time, he’s absent-minded, except when he takes over after an employee’s failure. Lukas is not very communicative and rarely provides informal feedback. However, Lukas claims to foster empowerment as he delegates a lot of tasks and has confidence in his teams’ skills.

Anna is quite different. She shares her curiosity with the rest of the team, showing attention to the present moment. Anna frequently discusses the purpose of the work with her team and clarifies how the individual contributions relate to it. Anna enjoys providing informal feedback when guiding members of her team to make new decisions or to question established processes and also a frequent spontaneous appreciation for good work and ideas. Anna is authentic; she does not pretend. She believes that every mistake is an opportunity to learn, as individuals and as a group. In this sense, Anna’s viewpoint of empowerment relies on trust, mentoring, and coaching.

In this story, we see quite different leadership styles; however, both claim to empower people. Therefore, like in our last article about agility, empowerment seems to be a controversial term, allowing different interpretations and, as a consequence, having more or less desirable implications.

Srivastava, Bartol, and Locke (2006) define it as behaviors whereby power is shared with subordinates, and that raises their level of intrinsic motivation (Srivastava et al. 2006). Based on this definition, Lukas could argue that he fosters empowerment as while delegating, he’s sharing power. Besides, Lukas’ team always fulfills its objectives, though sometimes at a higher cost. Overtime is an implicit rule in this team, and the processes haven’t been modified for a while. However, Lukas’ team is perceived as a dedicated and responsible team, and in a way, makes Anna’s life better. During the month-end close, punctuality is appreciated, allowing Anna’s group to work smoothly.

Analyzing Lukas’ team, we could say that they have a high level of efficacy, as they deliver in time. However, they pretty much lack of knowledge sharing, given the need to re-think their process to avoid endless working hours. The team shows above average rates of sick leave and employee turnover. Given these variables, we could say that team’s performance is ok, but it comes at a high cost and hence, is not outstanding. According to research, knowledge sharing and team efficacy are both critical determinants of team performance (Srivastava et al. 2006; Argote 1999; Gully et al. 2002).

Empirical studies support that empowering leadership is positively related to both knowledge sharing and team efficacy, which, in turn, are both positively associated with performance (Srivastava et al. 2006). Empowering leadership has been studied from three perspectives. The first focuses on leader actions, specifically, sharing power or giving more responsibility and autonomy to employees (Kirkman and Rosen 1999; Strauss 1963). The second perspective focuses on employees’ response to empowerment, in particular, looking at their motivation. The third one is a combination of both (Srivastava et al. 2006; Conger and Kanungo 1988; Spreitzer 1995).

Kirkman and Rosen (1999) extended the concept of empowerment to the team level. They argued that empowered teams experience high potency and autonomy in performing their tasks; besides, they find their tasks more meaningful and impactful, leading to higher intrinsic motivation (Srivastava et al. 2006; Kirkman and Rosen 1999). Empowerment also relates to creativity, and similar to its effect on performance, there is an indirect relationship. Empowering leadership positively affected psychological empowerment, which in turn influenced both intrinsic motivation and creative process engagement. These latter two variables then have a positive influence on creativity (Zhang and Bartol 2010)

The benefits of empowering leadership are clear; they all agree on empowerment as an ignitor for a set of highly demanded benefits in nowadays environment such as creativity and innovation, high motivation and performance, as well as autonomy and agility. So, why is it so difficult for leaders to empower people?

Well, going back to our story, it seems pretty clear that depending on the leaders’ shared behaviors, the team would tend to react accordingly. Therefore, the closer to a servant/transformational leadership approach, the better. In other words, empowerment is not a one time task; instead, it is an ongoing journey. Leaders need to provide constant guidance and support, authentically acting as role models for their people, prioritizing giving versus receiving.

Leaders’ mindset is the foundation of their leadership style, and their ability to remain connected to themselves as well as to the bigger whole would result in empowering their teams. During the last 40 years, scholars studied what we consider as vital leadership styles, such as transformational leadership and servant leadership. Both are rooted in a similar mindset, although the primary difference is the focus of the leader. The transformational leader’s attention is directed toward the organization, and his or her behavior builds follower commitment toward organizational objectives, while the servant leader’s focus is on the followers, and the achievement of corporate goals is a secondary outcome (Stone et al. 2004).

Furthermore, let’s agree on the fundamental influence of the organizational environment and culture, to empower people and to contribute to developing their potential. In our example, it seems that the top management has already decided to promote empowerment. In a real scenario, having a cultural assessment of the whole organization serves as a baseline for creating a solid leadership plan. A friendly cultural environment contributes to integration, while an adverse one promotes differentiation (Lawrence and Lorsch 1967).

Sometimes leaders, especially when it comes to middle managers, can’t promote and deploy the full potential of people as they are conditioned by an adverse organizational culture. However, this is not the case of our example. Anna seems to deliver according to what is required when it comes to empowering her team, especially when assuming the role of mentoring and coaching. Contrary to this, Lukas’s behavior illustrates something different, and as a leader, he also needs to be guided and mentored to develop the necessary mindset and skills. Still, he seems to count with some sort of buffer when it comes to leadership, given the team’s efficacy. However, we have seen that the results come at a considerable cost, which eventually will prevent their sustainable delivery. We’ve experienced in many organizations these kinds of contradictions, which are pretty natural in a changing process. Therefore top management involvement beyond the focus on results is urgently required: supporting leaders in the development of their mindset and shaping the organizational culture as role models turn out to be fundamental.

All in all, empowering others depends on the leader’s mindset and behavior, as well as the organizational culture. Only throughout continuous cultivation and assessment of these topics organizations and leaders could activate an internal change directed to empowering and energizing people as a prerequisite for exceptional performance.

Publication Bibliography

Argote, L. (1999): Organizational Learning: Creating, retaining, and transferring knowledge. np Kluwer. In Norwell, MA.

Conger, Jay A.; Kanungo, Rabindra N. (1988): The empowerment process: Integrating theory and practice. In Academy of Management Review 13 (3), pp. 471–482.

Gully, Stanley M.; Incalcaterra, Kara A.; Joshi, Aparna; Beaubien, J. Matthew (2002): A meta-analysis of team-efficacy, potency, and performance: interdependence and level of analysis as moderators of observed relationships. In Journal of Applied psychology 87 (5), p. 819.

Kirkman, Bradley L.; Rosen, Benson (1999): Beyond self-management: Antecedents and consequences of team empowerment. In Academy of Management journal 42 (1), pp. 58–74.

Lawrence, Paul R.; Lorsch, Jay W. (1967): Differentiation and integration in complex organizations. In Administrative science quarterly, pp. 1–47.

Spreitzer, Gretchen M. (1995): Psychological empowerment in the workplace: Dimensions, measurement, and validation. In Academy of Management journal 38 (5), pp. 1442–1465.

Srivastava, Abhishek; Bartol, Kathryn M.; Locke, Edwin A. (2006): Empowering leadership in management teams: Effects on knowledge sharing, efficacy, and performance. In Academy of Management journal 49 (6), pp. 1239–1251.

Stone, A. Gregory; Russell, Robert F.; Patterson, Kathleen (2004): Transformational versus servant leadership: A difference in leader focus. In Leadership & Organization Development Journal.

Strauss, George (1963): Some notes on power equalization. In The social science of organizations, pp. 40–84.

Zhang, Xiaomeng; Bartol, Kathryn M. (2010): Linking empowering leadership and employee creativity: The influence of psychological empowerment, intrinsic motivation, and creative process engagement. In Academy of Management journal 53 (1), pp. 107–128.