27 September 2023

Showing the way: How leaders can empower employees

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Aaron De Smet, Caitlin Hewes and Leigh Weiss* explain how leaders can genuinely empower employees and the positive impact such an approach can deliver.

Leaders’ fundamental misunderstanding of “empowerment” often results in management styles that don’t deliver for managers, employees or the organisation.

What, then, does it mean to truly empower those you manage, and what actions can you take to drive results?

Genuine empowerment requires leaders to be involved, to be of service, to coach and mentor, to guide, to inspire — it means frequent, highly involved interactions, just of a different nature than the autocratic and controlling style.

Why is genuine empowerment so difficult to achieve in an organisation?

What are concrete actions leaders can take to empower others and improve the speed and quality of decision-making in their organisation?

Below are four tips to get you started:

  1. Provide clear rules
  • Define “in scope” versus “out of scope” decisions.
  • Provide guardrails for what success looks like, criteria to consider, when to just decide versus seek more input versus escalate.
  • Clearly communicate who makes which decisions.
  • Establish specific criteria for when decisions must be escalated for approval.
  1. Establish clear roles
  • For delegated decisions, assign one person the authority to decide.
  • Make it clear to others what their roles are (e.g., a “consult” must have a chance to provide their perspective, but does not have the right to veto/escalate if they disagree).
  1. Don’t be a complicit manager
  • More senior leaders should say no if asked to step in to take a decision.
  • Avoid escalation in the guise of advice-seeking; instead give options, ask questions, discuss how to make a good decision, highlight important facts or considerations in an unbiased way.
  • If a decision has been delegated to a team, and the team disagrees, allow the assigned decision-maker(s) to determine if and how to escalate.
  • Managers should only escalate if they are truly stuck (not simply concerned that not everyone with input is in unanimous agreement).
  1. Address culture and skills
  • Build capabilities (e.g. how to say no and have difficult conversations).
  • Understand and address root causes (e.g. avoiding or spreading accountability).

This isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach and it will take time to develop the capabilities in your managers and employees to empower and be empowered.

Occasionally, when decisions are important and there isn’t a highly capable person, the only option might be closely directing the work or doing it themselves.

Building stronger capabilities takes time, and for decisions that must be made in the meantime, micromanaging can be the answer.

All work is not equally important, and that’s where managers will need to make tough decisions about how they lead.

* Aaron De Smet is a Senior Partner, Caitlin Hewes is a Senior Associate and Leigh Weiss is a Management Consultant at McKinsey & Company.

This article first appeared at www.mckinsey.com.

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