Empowering the team — easier said than done

Mandar Kale
4 min readMar 30, 2021
Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

A million-dollar question —

As a leader how do you empower your team?

I was recently asked this question. The person asked this question with genuine curiosity. In this write-up, I want to put down my thoughts about empowering the team.

Before we start, please understand that it is not a simple answer OR a black or white solution. It rather is grey most of the time. The shades could/would change :) With whatever I have learned, experienced and applied — I can tell you a few things I do for empowering the team. I would put a few actionable points.

Empowering your team is a continuous process and not a target state to reach. Empowerment is distribution of a leader’s authority and control. There can be guidelines but not fixed rules for empowerment.To simply put, there is no rule book for this but a lot is based on your leadership/managerial style.

In the previous blog post I wrote about how important it is to be kind and follow simple things to be a good leader for a high performing team.There are two altitudes at which the leader works; In the system and on the system. A leader should work more on the system than in the system.

The 3Ps are important for a leader to follow and maintain the order to continue having a foundation for a good system while working on the system. Empowerment is important for the team to work in the system that you have put in and to improve as needed.

Once a team has achieved a level of maturity on empowerment, leaders can step back and work on the system.

There are three important factors for empowering the team:

  1. Trust
  2. Competence of the team and expectations setting
  3. Psychological safety

Empowerment is at the intersection of the above three factors. Empowerment at the intersection depicted below.

Trust -

There are a lot of benefits of building trust. I have written about building trust with the leader and also amongst the team here in one of the previous blogs. The trusted circle for the team should include all the people working with the team on a regular basis. It is important for all the leaders, including tech or people leaders, to build trust with the team and each member of the team.

Competence and expectations setting-

I also have covered competence in detail in the previous blog about Process and Product under the heading of process and discipline.

Let’s switch gears to expectations setting now. In any performance management, one of the first few things to happen is the expectations setting. It is important to set the expectations with the team on how much they need to self organise and deal with day to day of the projects while the leader is focusing a few quarters ahead in the future. Some of the guidelines I have created here are-

  1. Explicit guidance on when to ask for help
  2. Clear timelines on how long the ETAs (expected time of arrivals) on dependencies should be. Escalating after crossing the SLAs (service level agreement)
  3. Looping in the manager or leader sooner than later to avoid surprises
  4. Feel free to ignore leader / manager if things are under control of the team
  5. Being very action oriented when it comes to improving the overall productivity
  6. Clarifying when and why the leader is going to step in and step out

Psychological safety -

This is one of the most important things but uncommon. If you don’t have mental peace how are you going to go above and beyond contributing to the results that matter? Psychological safety has to be created very carefully and deliberately. One thing that I keep telling my team when they are working with lots of ambiguities and risks is — “Failure is mine and success is yours”.

The ultimate truth is that a leader is responsible for failures of all sorts.

Actionable nuggets to take away are -

  1. Targeting what over who for the failures to encourage risk-taking
  2. Clarifying that asking for help is sign of maturity not weakness
  3. We (the team) watch each others’ back always
  4. Manage change with clear vision and reasoning. This could be either team change or project change.

Some of the things that go strictly against psychological safety are -

  1. Doubting job security for taking risks
  2. Not having individual growth plan
  3. Talking to your team members about others’ performance challenges (if any)

Summary -

The goal for a leader should be to empower the team and get out of the way. It helps the team self organise and move forward. Empowerment is a very fundamental and existential factor for high performance teams. Best of luck for your journey of empowerment!