Empowerment vs. Abandonment

Is Your Team Empowered or Abandoned? Eight Ways to Encourage Autonomy

Center for Values-Driven Leadership Leadership, Values-Driven Leaders

Empowerment vs. AbandonmentKnow the difference between empowerment & abandonment, so you can lead effectively

As leaders, we want those under our leadership to be focused, effective, and capable of performing at a high level without constant oversight and attention. By giving them room to work, we empower our followers to utilize their abilities and achieve their potential.

However, we are concerned not to remove ourselves so far from the process that critical issues are overlooked or the team’s functional capacity is impeded by lack of direction. Neither do we want our people to feel like they have been left alone by us, forced to fend for themselves in the leadership void.

How can we effectively lead in a way which gives our followers the room to succeed without becoming absent leaders? What are the leadership traits that define empowerment and what are the leadership deficits that lead to abandonment?

Empowerment: Encouraging Autonomy without Disconnection

Leadership research has identified multiple leadership styles scattered across a wide spectrum of leader/follower engagement. The style which represents the least engagement is called laissez-faire leadership  – a French term which translates as “let it be.”  Laissez-faire leaders are disengaged, often letting teams and team members operate on their own with virtually no management. This extreme hands-off approach frequently leaves team members frustrated and anxious because the disconnected leader provides no direction.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is authoritarian (or autocratic) leadership.  Authoritarians are hands-on and interventionist, and tend to micro-manage their followers.  This leadership style can create a stressful work atmosphere where team members feel disenfranchised, controlled and fearful of punitive treatment for mistakes. A Houston Chronicle blog observes that under autocratic leadership “employees may worry less about completing business functions to the best possible outcome and more about avoiding punishment from leaders and managers.”

Somewhere between authoritarian hyper-leadership and laissez-faire non-leadership lies democratic leadership, a style in which leaders offer the direction, resources, and feedback needed to empower their followers to work on their own.  Democratic leaders view their followers as peers rather than subordinates.  Communication within the team and between team members and the leader is a priority.  A democratic leader informs and guides the team without giving orders or making demands.

As a leader, it is important that your leadership style reflects your organization’s values, vision and mission.  Many organizations have espoused core values such as a positive and affirming work environment, opportunity for staff to develop to their fullest potential, and an emphasis on creativity and innovation.  Democratic leadership and empowerment of team members are highly effective at fostering these organizational values in daily operations.

The challenge for the democratic leader is to know when to be active and engaging with the team and when to be passive and allow team members to operate with a degree of autonomy.  Too much engagement can pull the leader and team into an autocratic, top-down leadership environment.  However, too much distance and lack of engagement can cause a team to feel abandoned by their leader.

Finding the Right Balance of Leadership for Empowering without Abandoning

How can we effectively empower our team members and give them enough space to reach their potential without leaving them feeling lost and alone? Here are a few ideas to help you become a more effective leader – one who empowers your followers while staying engaged with them.

Articulate the Big Picture (and Avoid Micromanagement)

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Elsbeth Johnson argues that leaders need to spend more time on macromanagement, or the larger strategic issues an organization must consider. Clearly defining and articulating these larger issues to team members is essential for them to be effectively empowered. She writes: “If leaders aren’t providing clarity and certainty about these critical macro questions, then the best, most motivated employees flail in their so-called freedom because they can’t be sure they are doing what leaders want or are using their time and resources in the best way possible.”

Provide an Operational Framework

Lisa Magloff explains that an operational framework sets out important guidelines for team members by establishing policies, setting goals, developing objective standards for performance measurement, delineating procedures, specifying necessary training, and espousing principles of good governance and organizational values. A solid framework empowers followers by giving them necessary parameters and defining the paradigm in which they can function with discretion. Keep in mind that a good operational framework is dynamic, not static. Leaders must diligently monitor and adjust the framework over time.

Properly resource your team

Even though you’ve painted the big picture for your organization and developed a framework for success, your team will never be able to accomplish their goals without the proper resources. One of your jobs as a leader is to ensure that your team members have all the assets in place to carry out their responsibilities, whether it be working capital, personnel, materials and equipment, or other necessary resources.

One of the great by-products of proper resourcing and empowerment is that it fosters organizational innovation. Steve Denning wrote about an innovation study by MindMatters in which more than 80% of respondents said “their firms do not have the resources needed to fully pursue the innovations and new ideas capable of keeping their companies ahead in the competitive global marketplace.” Give your team the resources to perform and the space to be creative and they will generate much-needed innovation.

Establish effective lines of communication

One of the most essential dynamics of democratic leadership is effective communication. For team members to feel empowered, they need to receive quality communication from the leader and in turn have the leader receive feedback from them.

For communication to be effective, it needs to be given and received honestly, considered fairly, and be trustworthy. Trust is essential for effective communication. Failure to do what you say you will do will destroy trust among your team members, leaving them feeling abandoned because they cannot rely on what you communicate.

Teach creative problem-solving skills

If you want your team to perform well without needing constant hands-on attention, teach them to problem-solve. An empowered team is able to assess problems as they arise and craft appropriate solutions to resolve them. Think of the scene in Apollo 13 where Gene Kranz (played by the great actor Ed Harris) works with his team to devise a life-saving method to retrofit a CO2 filter for their distressed astronauts.

A fundamental tenet of problem-solving is understanding the “why” and “how” of the matter. Why do we function in a particular way? Why did this problem create a failure? How can we adjust the process to resolve this problem without creating other problems? Helping your team to understand systems and apply organizational values and principles gives team members the confidence to analyze and resolve many problems.

Help team members know when to elevate an issue

Sometimes your team members will encounter issues which are beyond their ability to successfully resolve. For your team members to be empowered, you must teach them how to discern and define problems which exceed their ability and give them working channels through which to refer problems to the appropriate resource for resolution.

Some of the worst business decisions happen because the decision-maker acts from faulty motivation.  They may act out of misguided confidence in their own abilities, out of fear of retribution from a superior, or worst of all, they may act out of desperation because they believe their leader has abandoned them and left them to make do with their own limited abilities.

Give your team members time to work things out on their own

Sometimes the best way for you to build confidence and problem-solving skills in your team members is to temporarily delay your response to a problem which has been referred to you. Don’t ignore the problem, but give your people some time and motivation to try and work it out on their own in the interim.

My friend Brett Hinds recently told me that in his role as Chief Engineer of Ford Motor Company’s Electrified Powertrain System Engineering program, he occasionally gets e-mails from his engineering teams with requests for help on issues which they have concluded are beyond their ability to resolve. He sometimes allows those e-mails to “season” for a few days, during which time the empowered engineers will re-think through the problem and come up with the answer on their own.

Here’s another short story about the importance of giving team members time to work things out on their own:

Monitor from a distance

Even when your team members are empowered, resourced, and highly functioning, it is incumbent upon you as a leader to know what your people are doing and to track their progress. On the one hand, team members usually do not want to be hovered over or feel like everything they do is being scrutinized. On the other hand, they want to know that their leader is paying attention, knows their work, and will act accordingly.

Utilize all the tools available to monitor your team members’ activities from a comfortable distance and provide appropriate feedback.  Regularly review reports, statistical assessments, and other data which will help give you a fuller picture of team member performance. Abandoned team members may feel that their leader is uninformed, aloof, and disconnected from their work due to lack of oversight.  Empowered team members know that their leader is paying attention, is studying the results of their efforts, and is willing to offer constructive feedback and clear direction as a result.

How you lead reflects your organization and you. Make sure your values and your organization’s values are reflected in your leadership. By doing so, you empower your team members and celebrate them as your organization’s greatest asset.


David W Barnett is a doctoral candidate in Values-Driven Leadership at Benedictine University and the owner of Grand Arbor Advisors in Richland Hills, Texas.

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