Empowering project teams

by Ty Kiisel, @task - A friend of mine, Deanne Earle, who writes the Change Through Action blog, said in a recent post that "when employers talk about empowerment what they're really saying is they seek to encourage their staff to think for themselves, to come up with ideas, participate, and generally show initiative within a set of controls and after specific direction."

Maybe we should read that again, paying particular attention to the last part of the sentence. "…within a set of controls and after specific direction."

This isn't really empowerment; this is pseudo-empowerment -- the illusion of empowerment. Empowerment implies that you accept the premise that people know what they're doing and have the ability to move forward (without micro-management).

When organizations with a command-and-control culture talk about "empowering project teams," it's frustrating and demoralizing. Members of the team understand that there's a difference between telling them they are "empowered" and actually "being" empowered. A culture that relies on command doesn't permit, let alone support, empowerment.

Empowering people means giving them real responsibility for the success of their contribution to a project. This is a visible act of trust and enables team members to contribute. Although it might be accepted that a good leader “empowers” his or her team members, what does that really mean in practice? Let me suggest four general guidelines to help foster an atmosphere of empowerment:

1. Show appreciation. I don't know why it's so difficult, but some managers (I purposely don't use the term "leaders" here) don't have any appreciation for what the members of their team actually do. I once worked with a guy who thought he could do everyone's job better than everyone else on the team could. It made all of us wonder why he didn't. Showing a little appreciation goes a long way.

2. Pay attention. Nobody likes to be ignored. When team members are talking or making a presentation, nothing is as demoralizing as watching their manager open up a computer to check email or continually glance down at their smartphone. Not only does that behavior disempower team members, it's downright rude.

If this kind of thing takes place outside the confines of a meeting, and you really are too busy just then, schedule a time to talk when you won't be so distracted. If it's in the middle of a scheduled meeting, I'm afraid you really need to just suck it up and pay attention.

3. Acknowledge accomplishment. I'm not suggesting that every time someone does a good job, you should be required to make a big deal about it. However, publicly acknowledging accomplishment is important. For the most part, when people work extra hard or achieve a significant milestone, some sincere praise is in order.

4. Get out of the way. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great." If given the opportunity, most people will step up and show themselves "great." Of course that doesn't mean that everyone on your project team will respond to an increased level of autonomy. If you have someone who doesn't or won't step up, you must decide if they are trainable, or if they might be better suited to another team someplace else. However, I have met very few people who qualify as unteachable.

Creating an environment that empowers the team is not only easy, but in the long run it empowers you. As author and teacher Barbara Coloroso said, "The beauty of empowering others is that your own power is not diminished in the process."

For more project management tips, see:

How to say no nicely: A tip for project managers

Project management: Scrapping a doomed project

Project Management: 4 Questions To Ask Before Starting Any Project

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