Posts tagged with #Empowerment
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”.
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.