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Ensuring Empowerment Works

December 19, 2017 5:46 pm

Early in my career I noticed that some groups dread being asked to provide opinions or recommendations because they feel that their input is rarely included in the final decision. They typically attribute it to having a bad or inexperienced leader, but the more I studied the underlying causes, the more it became clear to me that ‘empowerment’ is often a misunderstood word and/or action.

What is Empowerment?

The empowerment of any given group relates to the level of authority their leader has given to make decisions on actions, implementation, strategies and so on. Defining and communicating empowerment when working in teams is a must for managing expectations and autonomy. This is what I call “empowerment planning”.

For instance, as a leader, have you ever asked for input or even a proposal, only to realize that the recommendations being put forward are way too risky, costly or not relevant to the target audience? How did it feel? Probably not so great, especially if you know the team put a lot of time and effort into creating what they believed was a sound proposal. The good news is that you can avoid this problem with sound empowerment planning.

Empowerment planning can help you manage the expectations of your team and avoid causing disappointment and wasted time. When asked for input, suggestions, recommendations and so on, it’s important for members of a team to know exactly how their input will be utilized, if at all, for any given decision. Not communicating this information can result in a loss of time, resources and trust between you and team members.

Defining Empowerment Levels

When we engage in empowerment planning, we use four different levels of empowerment to define where the accountability lies. Levels 1 and 2 place accountability for a decision on management whereas Level 3 calls for shared accountability between management and the group. Level 4 places almost all accountability on the group to make a decision.

The four levels of empowerment can be understood using the following matrix:

Level 1
Level 2
Level 3
Level 4
 Decision made; meeting held to communicate decision and address questions Management will make decision, but seeks input before decision is finalized  Management sets parameters, group to recommend; veto reserved by management Group authorized to decide and implement, based on management’s macro parameters


Facilitator Responsibilities for Empowerment

As a facilitator, I am frequently asked to facilitate decision-making meetings. Part of my prep work is to help the leader understand their degree of willingness to empower the team. Based on the leader’s desired outcomes I review the levels of empowerment with them to help determine the appropriate level, which in turn will dictate the type of facilitation I’m to provide. For example, when the meeting outcome is purely for relaying information on a decision (Level 1) or getting feedback on a proposed decision (Level 2), I know it’s going to be more of a “tell” style of meeting. This means for Level 1, I just have to facilitate a Q&A session to help the leader clarify their decision to the members. For Level 2, I would facilitate a consultative feedback session for acquiring feedback from the team to help the leader make a better-informed decision.

On the other hand, if the meeting outcome is to leverage the team’s wisdom because of previous successes in making decisions in this area, then I know I’m to facilitate more of an “ask” type of meeting (empowerment levels 3 or 4). With these higher levels of empowerment, I would definitely be facilitating a richer, more involved decision-making process with the team.

Leadership Responsibilities for Empowerment

If you’re assigning an empowerment level of 1 or 2 to a team you most likely have made a decision or are pretty close to making one. When assigning a 3 or 4 empowerment level to a team, a leader is giving ownership of defining a decision to your team. Therefore, you must ensure the team has clarity as to the non-negotiables. This is where parameters like timelines, people resources, level of risk and budget constraints must be communicated from the start. The reason a leader would empower the team at these levels is because they believe the team has the competence (e.g. has demonstrated success with this is the past) and the willingness to make a recommendation (level 3) or a decision (level 4). Sharing this information ensures that the group provides the right response within the right scope. Not providing this information could result not only in an unsatisfactory recommendation but also feelings of resentment and disappointment within the team.

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