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Walking That Fine Line Between Empowerment and Abdication

“Find the autonomy in your work. Autonomy is key to feeling good about the work you do, no matter what kind of work it is.” – JEAN CHATZKY

We all talk about empowerment of our people and how that is an enabler for truly Agile ways of working. Have you ever stopped to consider what empowerment and autonomy truly means, what it demands, how it can go wrong and how you can prevent that? Sure, you can motivate people in a big way by granting autonomy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are actually empowered or that you have taken a safe, stable course of action for your team. Misunderstood and misguided autonomy can effectively lead to a perception from the team of abdication by senior leadership, which can destroy trust in an organisation and be massively counterproductive. There is a fine line between maintaining that sense of empowerment and risking the pitfalls of abdication, which we will discuss in more detail in this article.

What is Empowerment?

Empowerment can be simply defined as giving people greater control in their professional lives, but it can (and should) be considered as a much more powerful and influential tool that is earned rather than given. To substantiate that statement, empowerment is earned by the team for individuals as it is dependent upon mutual trust; shared vision and direction; a true understanding of Bounded Autonomy (more on that later); and appropriate accountability and responsibility being granted throughout the team.

When we talk about empowerment, it is important to note that generally there does need to be a certain degree of team maturity for it to exist. Equally, empowerment granted at one level of a team needs to apply to all people at that level, otherwise it can be incredibly divisive.

Bearing this in mind, empowerment can be a force multiplier in terms of effort and effectiveness in decision making. We see this as people do not have to be constrained by waiting for decisions from Senior Leaders before proceeding with the work itself and can make tactical decisions based upon a firm understanding of strategic vision. It is not uncommon for a relatively low-level product decision to take days for a development team to obtain from product management, who will almost certainly act upon the advice of development leads anyway. Therefore it stands to reason that such decisions should lie in the hands of development leads who can make them in minutes, as they fully understand the landscape and context of the decision required. So empowerment is a really good thing!!

When can it all go wrong?

If we say that we can reduce time to make decisions on a tactical basis drastically by empowering our people, it is important to stress that there needs to be a framework or set of guardrails that exist to ensure that people understand the limits of their authority and when they must defer decisions to the next functional leadership level up.

We call this Bounded Autonomy – the set of guardrails that are defined and agreed to exist for decision making at each functional level of the team. This could be based around final outcomes, structural product and team decisions, financial constraints and many more attributes. This is also dependent upon the nature of the work being carried out by the team, the value-driven outcomes required and/or actual personal experience/knowledge. It is vital that team members are fully aware of the extent of their own bounded autonomy and are comfortable operating within those boundaries. Likewise, it is vital that leaders respect the bounded autonomy afforded to their teams, and support their people in operating within those guardrails (including helping make decisions where requested by the team and supporting decisions made in good faith, based upon sound rationale).

Empowerment falters when bounded autonomy does not exist or is not understood by the people exercising it. It is more often a leadership failing, as assumptions are made around the understanding and acceptance levels by the teams of their own bounded autonomy. This can lead to decisions not being tactically made, where there is an expectation for that to be the case (which probably won’t be disastrous, but will cost time and effort). Conversely, it can also lead to decisions that are inappropriate for the level and experience of team members being made which can have great strategic ramifications and can destroy team ethos, trust and confidence as decisions are revised (or even reversed!!).

Another leadership failing that can be equally dangerous in attempting to foster empowerment within a team is granting too much bounded autonomy or even unbounded autonomy, which is effectively abdication of leadership responsibilities. Whilst granting accountability and responsibility to teams can be a huge motivator, abdication will often rapidly lead to a sense of unease and mistrust within the team, as people begin to question what support they are being given to make the right decisions to achieve strategic aims.

There is a very definite but fine line between empowerment and abdication. True Bounded Autonomy and active leadership support for teams (through regular effective communication and leading by example) definitely make the difference between abdication and empowerment. A constantly variable and active servant leadership relationship will ensure that empowerment can exist and can be kept from teetering off into the abyss of abdication (it can take exponential effort to recover true empowerment, which can be lost in a heartbeat).

The key thing is never to assume that anybody has an implicit understanding of their bounded autonomy, and never take it as given that a person will happily welcome the accountability and responsibility you are granting them. It may be that you expect (and can reasonably expect) them to take on the mantle readily, but you should always confirm that they understand the rationale behind it, have the wherewithal to embody it and know where they can gain any support they need to be what you require of them.

As a leader, you have the gift of granting proportionate control to your people through empowerment utilising an evolutionary understanding of their competency (either gained through experience, by reputation or recognised qualification) and clarity/potential consequences of the outcome required. What this means is that you should constantly be flexing the boundaries of autonomy granted to your team, but the aim is for this to grow without you losing the overall control of your team and the value outcomes they are employed to deliver.

How do I put this into practice?

Empowerment does not happen overnight. Abdication, as I stated earlier, can be perceived by teams by one action from leadership. How you actually develop a motivated, informed and productive team where mutual trust and servant leadership across the board exists is very subjective, depending on the culture, mindsets, experience and teamwork already present in the teams in question.

However, a few simple rules to apply when looking to empower your people are:

  • Lead by example – don’t expect your people to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself and display behaviours that you want to see from your team.

  • Never assume understanding or acceptance of Bounded Autonomy – be open with your team about what you are trying to achieve and why, and what you expect from them.

  • Remember that this may be a leap of faith for some of your team and fellow leaders, so act with compassion, empathy and openness.

  • Establish trust (the subject of a whole different article!!) and regular communication with your team. Ensure that you are open to being available to support people, enabling them to make the decisions you have entrusted them with.

  • Ensure your team has enough understanding of the strategic value they need to deliver to be able to ensure that they can make valuable tactical decisions readily.

  • As a leader, be available, be supportive, be decisive and be realistic with your expectations of your people – start small and grow organically to ensure sustainability.

  • Bounded Autonomy needs guardrails that are relevant, explicit and understood. If in doubt, start simple and develop that autonomy as your people grow.

In summary, empowerment can be a game changer for you and your team, but should not be seen as an easy way to make things happen quicker. Take the time to embody it, be mindful of the risk of abdication and support your people on their empowerment journey. You can then reap the rewards of an empowered team with bounded autonomy as you drive towards organic continuous improvement and the pursuit of excellence in delivery of value to your customers/organisation.


Any Questions?



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