Empowered Teams

By Diana Montalion

in Teams | August 23, 2021


Empowered teams are naturally occurring

Talks about “empowered teams” usually focus on how Leadership can create them. The question “how do we create empowered teams?” assumes an organization isn’t yet doing something important. If leadership begins “empowering”, whatever that means, teams will be empowered.

On the contrary. The absence of empowered teams suggests that an organization is doing something they should cease doing:  they are actively blocking or inhibiting those teams from arising and flourishing.

What you should do is actually a real act of leadership: you have to take things away. You have to reduce the structure, the processes. But that’s really difficult. It’s much easier and more comfortable to add things because that gives you a, maybe false, sense of control.”

Wouter Aghina // Principal, McKinsey, author of The keys to organizational agility

What typically block the emergence of empowered teams? Stifling their passion, ignoring their thinking or over-controlling their work. Flattening a team’s vibrant complexity with linear processes. Subjugating the team’s expertise. Stratifying strategic decision making, as if strategic thinking can simply “trickle down” to implementors. Demanding “concrete” answers before the team works through complex questions.

Empowered teams: they’ve got this. Does leadership have their back?

The question “how do we create empowered teams?” assumes something is missing. It is … the people who thrive on empowered teams. They will inevitably leave organizations that work against them. The pressure comes from many directions. A hero culture that prioritizes personal power will work against empowering others. An empowerment-seeking team member can end up doing all the “glue work” while teammates ignore (or deride) the need for that work. When an organization realizes they need empowered people, the best first question isn’t “how do we create them?” but “how did we lose them?” They might also wonder “how did we not attract those people in the first place?” Or they might wonder “how do we draw out the ones who are here but hiding?”

Who are those people – the empowered team members? Empowerment isn’t given, it is expressed. Being dubbed “empowered” will not lead teams towards the promised land. The obstacles in their way need to be removed.

People who empower others will cultivate thriving ecosystems wherever they go – if the surrounding system supports them. They are not created; they are nourished. People lead themselves towards impact.

Many qualities and behaviors come into play when a small group of people aim to make themselves “stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.” (The dictionary definition of empowered.) Behaviors that are a priority in one circumstance, empathy and patience for example, may be less valuable in others, where healthy boundaries and forthrightness are more necessary. There are no “10 Steps to Empowerment”. That list would gravely miss the point. Empowerment is the ability to discern what works, under the circumstances.

Still, there are common patterns and it helps to explore them. Especially when the goal is to encourage growth of people who will naturally cultivate empowered teams. When you put people together who are good at building empowered teams, this is what they do:

Common patterns of empowered teams

They proactively communicate

This is the alpha and the omega. Empowered teams ensure that others know what they need to know, when they need to know it. Leadership can rest easy in the midst of uncertainty. If input is needed, they’ll hear about it.

Empowered teams are not islands of authority, though they do maintain the authority to take action in their domain. Rather than build too-thick or too-porous boundaries, they design “just enough” communication interfaces between their team and others. And they deliver “just right” timing of that communication.

They are the API-driven components within a sociotechnical system.

A foundational practice is communicating to interested parties as soon as there is a blocker. 

As an empowered team member, when I run into an obstacle, I ask for help. I partner with others to work around it. I practice transparency because I know that honest and open communication builds trust.

I build trust.

They think abstractly as well as concretely

Arriving at the best possible solution, under the circumstances, when conditions are uncertain never happens exclusively by following a map. Conditions are always uncertain. Empowered teams cultivate trust that they will arrive where they need to be, as expediently as they can get there, in the midst of uncertainty (which is always). Leadership can trust that they will avoid what needs to be avoided and handle unexpected challenges along the way.

Empowered teams are both pilot and navigator.

A foundational practice is making thoughtful, well-reasoned recommendations for taking action. 

As an empowered team member, I create strong, cohesive reasons to support my recommendations, rather than simply state my opinion. When I learn new information, I synthesize it with my reasons or I change them. I might not be right or the outcome might not be as anticipated but I will continuously improve my thinking. In other words, I learn. I resist making something concrete before I understand it well enough. And I can tell you why whatever I do matters to the mission I am serving.

They work strategically as well as pragmatically

Empowered teams get stuff done. Generally, they get more stuff done than overly-managed teams. Simultaneously, they will improve their ability and capacity to get matterful stuff done. Assuming leadership has clearly articulated the Big Picture, the mission teams are serving, they can trust that teams will improve the Big Picture while working to deliver the details.

Empowered teams know when they are off course, because they understand why they are going, where they are going. They course correct.

A foundational practice is to plan work together. 

As an empowered team member, I don’t do everything myself. I know that I can’t do everything myself. I need other points of view so my reasoning can get stronger.

Instead of siloing, I partner with others who represent different ways of understanding why we are doing what we are doing - and how to do it. Even when I’m in the weeds, doing what needs to be done, I can make optimizations and recommendations when new opportunities arise.

I synthesize knowledge, experience and sound judgement into solutions that solve high-value challenges. I value that ability more than my skillset in any one technology tool, which might be outdated next year.

They set expectations and meet them

You can trust that empowered teams will do what they say they are going to do. And when they can’t, you’ll know why and exactly what they are doing to mitigate. Empowered teams want to set expectations because they know what they need. They meet those expectations so, by building trust, they can continue setting them.

A foundational practice is estimating work as a team. 

As an empowered team member, I will make commitments based on my estimation of the time, energy and attention required. I won’t always be right and when I’m wrong, I will take the hit by finishing the work and do better next time. Simultaneously, because reality refuses to bow down to power, I will speak truth to power. I represent reality, as best I can.

That type of commitment can only happen on an empowered teams ... otherwise is just a path to burnout.

They value trustworthiness over social status

When the team succeeds, the team succeeds. When the team fails, each member digs in to help improve. Nobody needs to make empowered teams behave this way. They do so because they want to - they choose to. They know it is the only way to succeed as an empowered team. When a team member makes this difficult, pushing a silo’d hero approach, leadership needs to act against them.

Leadership can trust the team’s thinking. They know they can trust the team’s thinking because it is based on sound reasoning that is open to feedback and improvement. Whether a recommendation makes them famous or infamous, empowered teams will attempt to represent what it so.

A foundational practice is promoting each other’s abilities. 

As an empowered team member, the brilliance of my teammates is the key to my own success. You’ll never hear me speak ill of them … I’d only be speaking ill of myself. Instead, I open any necessary door that enables and empowers my companions. And I guard any door through which shame, derision or disrespect tries to enter.

Trust people to empower themselves

Empowered teams are people who invest their time, energy, attention, expertise, passion, systemic reasoning, care and experience in each other and in the work. They drive necessary change. They care about one thing above all else: doing the highest-quality work they can deliver together. They know that when the work is good, the experience of doing the work is equally good. So they make the experience enjoyable. When they can’t do this, they find somewhere else to thrive.

Empowered teammates will often stay connected even after they’ve moved on. Organizations lucky enough to have a few people with these qualities can rely on them to bring in more. If the organization creates a space that welcomes empowered teams.

Want to talk about empowered teams?

Mentrix loves to help teams and organizations establish these patterns. 

Diana Montalion

About the author

If you’ve read The Economist, donated to Wikipedia, or contributed to The World Monuments Fund, you’ve interacted with systems that Diana helped to architect. She has 15+ years experience delivering initiatives, independently or as part of a professional services group, to clients including Stanford, The Gates Foundation and Teach For All. She is co-founder of Mentrix Group, a consultancy providing enterprise systems architecture, technology strategy, and content systems development. She also takes meeting notes with a fountain pen and is an aspiring plant chef.

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