In our culture today empowerment has become a buzzword. Whether we’re talking about empowering women to learn and raise their communities out of poverty, empowering young children and students to reach for a better life, or empowering young employees to speak their mind for change, empowerment it seems is everywhere. And rightly so! Empowering others is a great thing. But what does it actually look like? What does it consist of?
In its formative years, empowerment tended to look like someone in a position of power - a manager, a parent, a mentor - simply expressing that they want the individual to feel empowered. I’ve heard many times in my career phrases like “I want to empower you to make this decision”, or “you should feel empowered to make changes here”.
Sounds great, but utterly ineffectual.
At Amazon, Jeff Bezos baked into the company culture the belief that good intentions, while noble and good, are alone insufficient. The intention needs to be there, yes, but that can’t be where it stops. There needs to be more - a follow up, a plan of action, a concrete mechanism that we can turn to that ensures the good intention happens.
What does feeling empowered look like?
For any individual to feel empowered, there are a few key conditions which need to be met. The individual must be in an environment or culture that is conducive to them taking action, making mistakes, and adjusting accordingly. They must have an internal confidence that allows them to strike out and act. They must have a curiosity and a desire to learn so that they can internalize the feedback that comes from their actions in order to change, evolve, and grow.
When people feel empowered, their eyes light up. They hold their heads higher. They stand up straighter. They maneuver within their environment without fear. They are focused on the future because they know that they can impact that future. They have hope because tomorrow is not determined for them; rather, it is dependent on them.
Let’s look a bit deeper at these conditions.
An empowered environment and culture
Whether we’re looking at a workplace culture, a family environment, or a group of close friends, an environment of empowerment is a life giving place that allows us to flourish and grow. Cultures that support empowerment do not place arbitrary restrictions and requirements on classes or groups of people dwelling in that environment.
This means that there are no criteria that exist that don’t provably impact the decision making process. For example, ethnicity, gender, and tenure at a company have no direct correlation to the strength of one’s ideas for a new product launch. Age, birth order, or position in a family tree have no correlation to the validity of one’s understanding of education. Religion, belief systems, or cultural background have no correlation to one’s ability to drive. A culture of empowerment does not have restrictions like these.
While these traits may appear to be correlated, empowering cultures dive one level deeper to determine what’s actually impactful. It used to be the case that tenure was a strict requirement for many things. However many empowering environments have recognized that tenure itself is not a key requirement. Tenure typically is correlated with experience, with wisdom, with knowledge, and with understanding, but it is not a strong correlation such that in many environments tenure has been removed as a criteria.
Environments that foster empowerment are ones where requirements are strongly correlated to the thing the requirements are applied to. It is our job as leaders and managers to regularly reevaluate our requirements to ensure the environment we build fosters the culture we want to have.
A few quick thoughts on how we can do that (more on this next time!):
- Have believable people that you regularly get feedback from. Make sure that these people know that their feedback should be honest, is valued, and will not cause retribution. And make sure they have the context from which to provide that feedback.
- Be transparent about the evaluation process. Share what people are being evaluated on. Provide them the details. Be honest. Stack ranks happen - let’s stop pretending they don’t. Treat people like adults and accept responsibility for when things aren’t fair.
- Give credit where it’s due. A good rule of thumb is for each piece of recognition you receive make sure you’re giving at least 5 times as much credit to others. None of us are self-made, so if you believe you deserve that credit and no one else does, you’re wrong.
People need confidence to learn. They need confidence to know that they can get this, that they are able to progress. They need to believe in themselves, that they are capable of change, of improvement.
It is not enough to put someone in an environment that is an empowering one. It is not enough to give them resources, to encourage them to speak out, and to create a safe space for them to do so. They have to believe that they can, and that they have something meaningful to offer. And we have to enable them to have belief.
The moment a person stops believing that things happen to them and starts believing that things can happen because of them, they begin to see the world in a different light. They begin to believe that they can shape their stars, that they can chart their own course, and that they can make the world better. It is that moment that Melinda Gates calls the moment of lift.
In her book with the same title, Melinda describes the moment of lift as
“a moment that captures grace. Something happens to relieve us, to release us from pain, from burden. It is extrinsic. We cannot lift ourselves. We must be lifted.”
It is that powerful grace that has the ability to set us on a different course and to truly lift us out of our current circumstances. To truly empower people we must lift them up. We must move them into a place where they begin to believe in themselves. We must help them to see that when the tides of circumstance loom overhead that they can stand against them.
A few thoughts on how we can help build confidence in others (again, more on this in a future post!):
- Be specific about praise. Saying “great job!” is absolutely useless. Tell them why. What was great? What did they do that was great? Why was it “great” and not “good”?
- Hold people accountable. When someone makes a mistake, let them know you hold them responsible. When we are honest in our accountability, people will know that we are also honest in our praise.
- Be generous with your time. Chances are people who you give feedback to don’t fully understand it. Take the time to explain it to them thoroughly. Remember that just because you’ve been thinking about it from many angles for a long time doesn’t mean that they have the same context. Be patient and walk them through it. Make sure they really get it before you move on.
Curiosity and learning
An unfortunate reality of our world is that our education systems are broken. They incentivize the wrong things. They promote memorization, short term recall, and specific application of a concept to a specialized problem space. This in turn creates a culture where we dread learning, mostly because we have an inaccurate understanding of it.
Learning ought to be a lifelong activity and endeavor. It is something that we expect of our children. It is something that we allocate the first quarter of our lives to. It is something that successful people do all their lives.
As children, we are born with an innate sense of curiosity. From a young age we are curious about everything and anything under the sun. We stick things in our mouths, we put our chubby little fingers into wall sockets, and we’re mesmerized by anything new. We want to be like our older siblings, our parents, our role models. We want to progress forward. We are curios and want to learn.
And yet as we have gotten older, we’ve lost touch with that curiosity and have lost the sense of wonderment and joy at learning new things. Instead we prefer to fill our time with meaningless trifles such as celebrity gossip and the vast amounts of time-wasting things all around us. We’ve lost the ability to be in awe of things, to marvel at things, to be amazed by things, and to be infinitely curious about them.
So how do we spark curiosity in ourselves and in others? A few thoughts (and again, more next time!):
- Build in time to slow down. Whether it’s meditation, going for a walk, or just simply dedicating time to sit and enjoy your morning cup of coffee, slowing down allows our minds to wander and wonder.
- Don’t answer a question, even if you know the answer. Whether we’re talking about employees, children, or students, sometimes the best thing we can do for someone is to not give them the answer even if we’ve got it. Let them stew on it. Let them consider what they know. Let them surprise themselves (and maybe even you!) with their thoughts.
- Put yourself in awe-inspiring places. Whether you’re taking the time to travel and see things or you’re surrounding yourself with some awesome people, know that your environment and your surroundings slowly but surely impact not just how you think, but what you think about.
By instilling a curiosity in people, lifting them so that they have the confidence to act on that curiosity, and putting them in an environment that values, supports, and encourages those bold and brave behaviors, we can create the necessary conditions for creating more empowered people. And this is a great thing, because empowered people are the ones that can change the world.