Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Most modern leadership theorists argue the following: The command-and-control structures of the past are long gone, and in this age of information and technology, employees want to be empowered and given a certain degree of autonomy in their work.
This is actually great news for leaders. Engaged employees who have the freedom or space to use their creative genius deliver better, more sustainable results. But empowering others can be tough. Most leaders can easily recall a time (or a dozen) when trusting others didn’t work out and things weren’t done right or on time. When trusting others goes sideways, we tend to either blame the person we entrusted or blame the overall process of empowerment. We’ll say, “See, it’s easier to just do it myself. Others don’t do it as accurately or quickly as I do and I don’t have the time to train them.”
Both conclusions are usually fallacious. When extending trust doesn’t work, it’s usually our fault. Often, we pick the wrong people to empower, aren’t clear in our direction, don’t check in enough or don’t create a safe space. Once you’ve been burned, it can be scary to try again — but I assure you it’s the right thing to do. Here are four steps to help ensure you extend trust wisely, not blindly.
1. Take the time to truly evaluate your people
Entrusting others is both an art and a science. You don’t just “give things away.” It’s critical you pick the right people to entrust. Before we empower someone, we should evaluate the presence of three conditions.
First, evaluate the person’s natural talents and current skills. It’s important we understand where others are currently at, not where they will be. Someone might have great potential but not be ready just yet. Second, understand the person’s interests. Giving away assignments that don’t align with someone’s passions or desires is a surefire way to create boredom in their work. Third, respect the person’s time. While someone might be wholly capable of more and want more, if they’re already overloaded with other responsibilities, the results will be disappointing. When empowering someone, it’s critical that you make sure they’re capable of the work, want the work and have time for the work.
2. Know the difference between delegation and empowerment
I hate the word “delegate;” I far prefer “empower.” Delegation is about giving away specific tasks. Empowerment, on the other hand, is all about giving away broader power: the power to make decisions, use judgment and drive something forward in a new direction.
When we delegate a task, we get something off our plate and put it onto another’s plate. This solves the short-term problem of time management and the primary beneficiary is usually us; however, when we’re empowering others, we grow and stretch them. This solves the long-term goal of development and the primary beneficiary is usually the person we empowered. That, in turn, benefits us — but the real win is that our employees grow as people, learn new things, become stronger, become more competent and they can now solve more complex problems.
We don’t empower others because we’re overwhelmed, but because we have a true interest in wanting others to grow. When this is the focus, we are thoughtful and deliberate about who, what and why. The projects we empower others with tie into longer-term development plans and we articulate that. We’d say, “Jane, I know we’ve talked about your desire to become a senior manager in the next two years. For that to happen, we really need you to learn X. I’d really like you to take on Y assignment since it will help you learn X. Let’s talk about what that looks like. How does that sound?” Typically, Jane will feel valued because you care about her long-term goals and want to help her achieve them. She’ll also understand the connection between the assignment she’s getting today and her future goals, so she’ll be far more committed to ensuring it’s done well.
3. Establish frequent check-in points
If you’ve found the right person and you’ve empowered them, you’re golden, right? No. Not until you establish a routine or process for checking in. As things move along, it’s important you regularly ask: “Where are we at with X?” or “How’s X going?” Also ask, “What, if any, help do you need?”
When you follow up and ask for status updates, you show that you’re both interested in the outcome of the project and available to help, if needed. You demonstrate you haven’t forgotten about what you gave away, that it still matters and you’re curious about how it’s progressing.
4. Create a safe space for mistakes and failure
When you empower others, recognize that things probably won’t be done exactly as you would’ve done them — and that’s okay. All too many managers retract back power midway through an assignment because things weren’t getting completed the way the manager expected.
Retracting back power is a silent killer. When others feel there’s only one way — a.k.a. your way — to do something, being empowered isn’t fun. People feel they can’t get it “just right” and they seek perfection, which can leave them feeling withdrawn and disconnected from the work. They’ll think, “Why bother trying harder? It’ll never be good enough anyway.”
Instead, cheer people on for their unique personalities and new innovations. If mistakes or errors get made along the way, don’t admonish or berate. Instead, turn those moments into teachable ones full of learning. When people feel it’s okay to make mistakes or err, they try harder and pour themselves into the task, because they feel it’s okay to take chances. They have faith they’ll be supported no matter what. That extra effort often leads to great results.
Without these four practices, empowerment rarely works. Do these four things and you’ll find that empowering others is a win-win. Your employees will flourish and be fiercely loyal to you for helping that happen. You’ll have a stronger team surrounding you. You’ll reclaim coveted time back.