From the moment of birth we are exposed to a vast array of environments. These environments have a wide range of variations. They can vary in formality, in size, in structure, in purpose. They can be professional environments of learning and productivity or personal environments of friendship and trust. They can be seasoned environments such as a childhood friendship that has aged well over time, or can be young and temporary environments like a hasty summer romance that burst into view only to fade from existence with the falling of the leaves.
Regardless of their variation, every environment we are in has the potential to be incredibly empowering and life-giving or to be terribly oppressive and stifling. Further, an environment can change drastically and quickly, sometimes without warning and seemingly without reason.
But there is always a reason. There is always a cause. Whether intentional or not, environments (or their modern, professional term “culture”) are shaped by a myriad of factors.
We’ve been discussing the concept of empowerment lately; today we’ll take a deeper look into empowering environments, their key ingredients, and how as leaders (official or otherwise) we can intentionally shape them.
What is an empowering environment?
There are many definitions out there of what empowering environments look like, and there are many contexts to which they apply. Each of these definitions has their uses and merits, and I’m not going to dispute any of them; rather, I’ll offer what I hope to be a useful generalization that applies across all walks of life.
An empowering environment is one in which every individual is free to express and to act in a respectable and appropriate manner without fear of retribution and unjust response. Said environment promotes the equality and equity of all its members, and creates space for meaningful dialogue and mutually beneficial encounters.
Said simply, an empowering environment is one where you can be yourself without fear of being judged unfairly.
Empowering environments have a number of things in common:
- They promote diversity of thought and opinion. Regardless of background or experience, empowering environments value the thoughts and actions of any individual objectively. They foster open and unbiased discussion and allow all ideas to be considered, regardless of their origin.
- They are supportive of mistakes. Empowering environments allow for mistakes to happen, and are built in such a way as to value mistakes with the knowledge that mistakes are a part of the learning process. There is no fear of retribution; rather there is praise for a chance taken, an idea investigated, and a calculated risk attempted.
- They are nonhierarchical. While there may be a physical hierarchy in place (for example manager/direct report relationship), those hierarchies are not leveraged as a value judgment, rather as a job description. Empowering environments allow for the truth that great ideas can come from anywhere in the organization or group.
- They allow for dissection to be expressed productively. Every group contain members who have differing opinions. Whether this is in the context of a family unit, a professional team, or a group of friends, there will be situations that arise in which members disagree. Empowering environments allow those disagreements to surface and to be discussed in a productive manner, and provide rules for tie breaking as needed.
- They foster and facilitate trust. Perhaps most importantly, empowering environments are one where trust is valued and nurtured. As a relational species, trust is one of the most important and valuable commodities we have. Empowering environments foster that trust, and readily promote and value the building of trust across its members.
What does an empowering environment do for its members?
Some of us may not have ever taken the opportunity to stop and think if we’re in an empowering environment, and as a result may not realize how drastically different and how immensely transformative such an environment can be. So let’s first take a look at a few symptoms of a truly empowering environment, with the understanding that this isn’t a black and white thing; there may be many environments and situations that we find ourselves in that are somewhere along the spectrum of “richly empowering” and “soul suckingly oppressive”.
A list (definitely not exhaustive) of ways to know one is in an empowering environment:
- One never has to question how their actions may be perceived. Now, I don’t mean the type of environment where one can be a jerk and not care about the consequences. I mean simply that if one takes a reasonable action that is well-intentioned and is intended for the good of the company/team, one never has to worry if that action will ruffle the wrong feathers, will come back to become personally detrimental, or will cause a chain of politically-focused events of which one will never know the details but will feel the impacts of their consequences. Empowering environments are psychologically safe environments where one can express themselves, can disagree, and can healthily move on regardless of the outcome.
- There is trust amongst the members. Trust is an underrated commodity in our professional and personal interactions these days, but it is the most important underlying fabric for any highly functional society. Without trust there can be no shared goals and wins. Without trust there can be no close relationship. Without trust there can be only marginal victories that are wrought with suspicion and underlying/hidden motives. Empowering environments not only value trust but actively seek to create trust amongst its constituents. This means that there are active actions taken to build trust, to reward those that earn trust well, and to constructively rehabilitate those that don’t. Trust is part of the leadership culture, and is an active action that leaders take steps to promote, grow, and cultivate in the group.
- One can spend 100% of their time on value-add for the organization. This one is nuanced, and may be controversial, but my belief is that in empowering organizations, one can spend all their time on what they do best without need of “managing up”, with the full trust that those in leadership positions recognize great impact and value to the group without the need for one to self-promote. This isn’t to say that communication of one’s efforts is unnecessary; rather this is to suggest that the communication is necessary for collaboration and effectiveness, and not for visibility and perception. We will expand on this concept in a later post, but for now suffice it to say that when one is in a truly empowering group, the term “managing up” disappears from view.
- The culture is one of abundance and not scarcity. It is true that scarcity breeds certain beneficial traits, but my opinion is that it breeds too many negative and undesirable traits that makes that view a dated and clearly insufficient view. (For more, Lazlo Bock writes a great exposition on this in his book, Work Rules. In contrast, a culture of abundance allows members to truly celebrate another’s successes and advancements without comparison or fear of one’s own opportunities. Leaders that own cultures of empowerment ensure that their members do not feel as though membership is a zero sum game.
So as leaders (of organizations, teams, families, friend circles, or any other type of leading role) how do we cultivate an empowering environment?
The short answer is that this is hard, and that there are no definitive answers. The answers depend on the environment that you’re in, and the members (and future members) of that group.
As someone who has spent the majority of the past two decades building teams, let me share some of my thoughts and ideas that have worked well for me(always open for debate, and self-identified as a small set of data points of which I’ve sought to compare with the greats; Bill Gates, Sheryl Sandburg, Satya Nadella, Ray Dalio, Bob Iger, Bill Campbell, Kim Scott, and many, many others).
It starts with you
I cannot stress enough how much of building a culture starts with you as the leader. If you want to cultivate an environment of empowerment, you have to first be someone that empowers others. As Julius Campbell (played by Wood Harris) puts it in Remember the Titans, one of my all time favorite movies:
“Attitude reflects leadership, captain.”
To build an empowering group culture, you have to model that for your group. Be self-critical. Examine your actions, your motivations. Surround yourself with believable people who will challenge you, support you, and most importantly will call you out on your bullshit.
In order for us to empower others, we must truly internalize the belief that enabling their success is better than accomplishing our own. We as leaders must value the organization and the group more than we value our own progress. We must be happy to be made obsolete as our team grows and as future empowered leaders step forward.
But most of all, we must be transparent. We must own it. When we make mistakes - this is explicitly not an “if” but a “when” - we must own it. We must be accountable and transparent with our group that we’ve taken a misstep.
Empowering cultures enable autonomy, but also promote accountability. The more we demonstrate that to our groups the more readily that culture seeps into each member and solidifies.
Surround yourself with people that amplify that empowerment
Make sure that those you surround yourself with are bought in and also care about the culture that you’re creating, and are themselves empowering people. Remember that the company we keep not only is a reflection of ourselves but is also a reinforcement of our values. We become more like the people we engage with regularly.
Be quick to get rid of the bad eggs
It only takes one bad egg to spoil a dozen. Remember that as a leader, team and culture are your most important priorities. As hard as it is to make the call to remove an egg, it’s your responsibility to do so. Do so quickly, but do so fairly. Get a few validating perspectives from your believable people, and then act.
Often what seems rash or an overreaction at time in fact in hindsight seems painfully obvious. More often than not, leaders wait too long to get rid of the bad eggs, and by the time they do much of the rest of the batch has already spoiled. Act swiftly.
A final thought
There are many dramatically different looking empowering environments out there, so it is impossible to describe any recipe or archetype to which all will adhere. I suppose the best way to describe an empowering culture is a phrase blazoned in history by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it”.