Practical Leadership Actions #4: How do I empower staff and build autonomy?

We have recently developed a series of practical leadership actions responsive to major themes that have emerged through our work with over 700 Discovery in Action® (Leading People) program participants.  We have observed six major themes that have consistently emerged as participants have grappled with the question: When do people perform at their best?  These themes are around people feeling supported, valued and safe; creating a ‘team environment’; supporting learning and growth; empowering staff and building autonomy; ensuring clarity of roles and expectations; and creating meaning and purpose.  Our participants have also articulated many practical leadership actions they take to address these issues.

Over 6 newsletters we are featuring a set of Practical Leadership Actions relating to each of these themes, generated through our exposure to on-the-ground leaders as well as various examples from blogs, articles and books.  These actions are not provided as definitive or comprehensive lists, but a working set of ideas that we are sharing broadly.  There is a minimum of at least 25 potential actions relating to each of these themes – so plenty of ideas that may spark your thinking and your day-to-day leadership practice!

So this month our featured practical actions are around…

How do I empower staff and build autonomy?

Many authors and researchers including Daniel Pink, David Rock and Malcolm Gladwell have all written about importance of autonomy to people’s wellbeing and performance at work. Giving people choice and a sense of control positively impacts levels of motivation.  Conversely when people feel that they have a lack of control or choice it can significantly negatively affect their stress and engagement levels.  So, a key task of leaders is to provide their staff and teams with a sense of feeling empowered and having control over their work.  This, however, can be challenging for leaders – on the one hand they recognise these benefits, however they also deeply understand that they own the ultimate performance accountability.  Leaders also understand that there are differing degrees of empowerment depending on the capabilities of their staff and inherent risks in the work being undertaken.  So leaders need to find a way to exert sufficient performance ‘control’ without being ‘controlling’ – this requires a deliberate, thoughtful and consistent approach to empowering staff across the five strategies outlined below.  We have created a simple one page sheet which contains 25 different ideas for action that leaders can take.  These actions are organised around the following 5 overarching strategies to create an environment where people feel empowered:

  1. Provide opportunities for empowerment – by actively identifying opportunities for pieces of work for which individuals or teams can be fully accountable and setting them up for success (see tips on delegation) sends a clear signal that you are valuing autonomy and creating an empowered work environment.
  2. Set clear boundaries – a critical discipline underpinning empowerment is leaders providing people with a clear understanding of the ‘space’ in which they have to operate and make decisions. This clarity provides the freedom they need to operate autonomously, with full confidence of the known boundaries.
  3. Encourage people to ‘take responsibility’ – taking responsibility is not always a social norm in organisations – in risk averse cultures there may be a tendency to push responsibility up the chain.  People need to be both encouraged and supported to take off the shackles, which will result in high levels of energy and commitment.  You might be inspired by this post on taking personal responsibility!
  4. Shore up the authorising environment – individual leaders will need to ensure support from key stakeholders outside the work area so that staff have the necessary permission and confidence to operate autonomously outside their immediate work team.
  5. Provide coaching and support – in an empowered environment, the leader has a role to coach people to think for themselves and discover their own way forward while also supporting them to learn from their successes and mistakes.  This grows capability and confidence and drives innovation and performance.

So while there is a list of possible actions for each of these 5 strategies contained in our one-page sheet, there may be many other actions, particularly relevant in your context, that you may also identify.  Of course, we’d be interested in other ideas for action that people have implemented!

This practical ideas list might be used in a variety of ways:

  • Reflect and review on your practice – do I have coverage across all these strategies?
  • Engage with your people – would they like to see more of some of these actions?
  • Select one or two actions from the list that you’d like to experiment more with over the next few months

Good luck and let us know of any other actions we can add to our list!