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Empowering Others – The Power of Trust & Autonomy

In Leadership

By Maura Fay Learning

“The best leader is the one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what they want done and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.“ Theodore Roosevelt

It’s a very old quote but we still like it today because it makes perfect sense. Why would a leader get so involved in the day-to-day work of their direct reports when they (a) have enough on their plate already, and (b) have the team that can do the work?

We have (thankfully!) come a long way since the days where a controlling leadership style, based on fear and force of will was the norm. Unfortunately, some leaders still see the notion of empowering leadership as a ‘chink in their armour’. That prioritising trust and autonomy over everything else shows weakness, even at the cost of superior team performance.

Over the years we have asked leaders, “why do you do the work of your team?” and their answers have included …

  • There is a lack of clarity between my role and that of my team, meaning potential ‘blurred lines’.
  • I can do it quicker and I don’t have the time to explain it.
  • There is a lack of trust in the team to execute without my involvement.
  • It’s not the other person’s strength so I need to get involved.
  • I actually enjoy doing that work (please don’t take all the fun things away from me).
  • Sometimes they don’t have time so I’m taking things off their to-do list and by doing so, showing my support.
  • I don’t want them to leave the company so I’ll do anything to make them stay.
  • I don’t like confrontation so it’s sometimes easier for me to do it rather than ask them to do it.
  • The pace of our business and lack of proper planning means that things just have to get done to meet a deadline (there’s not always time to discuss who does what).
  • I’m actually showing them the way.
  • I’m a bit of a “control freak”. I like it done a certain way and I’m probably impatient too, so I like it done now.
  • I like to be liked and helping them out makes me feel like I’m contributing and on their side.

Let’s press pause. What does all this mean?

We know that the world of work today is less hierarchical than it has ever been. People and leaders sometimes just need to pitch in to get things done without worrying about job titles. That all makes sense. However, many of the examples above of why leaders immerse themselves in the work of their teams, presents a real but concerning pattern of sustained behaviour that doesn’t serve anyone in the long term.

Left unchecked, over time leaders get distracted from doing the things they should be doing in their role. Equally, teams feel disempowered and when this happens, they lose confidence, trust starts to erode in the relationship with their manager, their role becomes very narrow and the team becomes dysfunctional. It’s just not a happy place to come to work. I know this all seems rather extreme but we’ve interviewed many, many people over the years as part of our research on the impact of leadership behaviour. You just have to see the outpouring of emotion from interviewees to the question, “what does it feel like when you’re not empowered at work?” to understand how deeply profound the concept of trust and autonomy is to people in the workplace.

In an article of this nature, we’re never going to be able to provide a full and clear way forward on empowering the team, creating trust and autonomy, but we would like to share three brief messages.

  1. Catalysts for problem solving

The changing role of leaders over the years has meant that leaders today must see themselves more as a catalysts for problem solving than the ones that need to solve all the problems themselves. Yes it is nice to be needed, the expert with all the answers that people come to when they get stuck, but in the end this behaviour only breeds a culture of dependence and disempowerment.

Having coached a range of leaders one-on-one, we have often found that the leaders that have to work the hardest to change this behaviour are the leaders that have previously performed the role of their team and potentially know the work of their team better than they do. Their high level of technical expertise, whilst an obvious strength, can create an environment where the team spend too much time second-guessing their ideas and the leader becomes way too hands-on.

  1. Freedom within a framework

Author and leadership expert Jim Collins refers to “freedom within a framework of responsibilities”. This reference alludes to the idea that leaders need to provide the boundaries to help employees understand …

  • Where are we going?
  • What’s my role to help us get there?
  • What are the standards of performance?

… and then give them the space to perform!

Jim Collins also mentions that this sense of freedom only works when you have “disciplined employees who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action”. So, when you’re thinking about ‘freedom’ in the workplace, it’s not just about creating the framework. You also have to have the right people to operate in that framework. Food for thought!

  1. When in doubt, elevate!

By “elevate”, we mean the activities of a leader that are more strategic, value-adding, future focused and probably more akin to the work of their own leader than the work of their team. And when we say, “when in doubt”, we mean when a leader has a spare moment in their calendar or when a leader is under pressure and needs to make a decision on what to do next.

This is key because so many leaders default down, not up when choice presents itself at work. It’s so easy to get caught into the trap of doing the work rather than leading the work. So, when in doubt, elevate!

Empowering the team is a deep and very personal concept. We trust that this article has got you thinking about the way you and others work.

At Maura Fay Learning we integrate the concept of leadership purpose into our ‘Empowering and Inspiring People’ learning solution. If you would like to find out more contact us today.



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