The following quote—attributed to Lao-Tzu, considered by many to be the wisest man in the history of China—summarizes a true leader’s achievement: “When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!’”
There are many reasons why empowering people results in better business outcomes. Below are just a few.
First, empowering team members can dramatically improve our organization’s capacity for creative problem solving. When we find ways to empower people, we significantly reduce bureaucracy, which frees team members up to think on their own and come up with novel solutions.
In Daniel Pink’s best-selling book Drive, he draws on 40 years of research showing how much more effective providing autonomy is as a motivator than is money. He points out how this is especially true for any work that requires creativity and other forms of higher-level thinking, which is almost all work in the business world. A great real-world example of this principle in action is Google’s flextime.
Google employees are allowed and strongly encouraged to spend up to 20 percent of their time on campus working on any project they want to. In other words, they can spend a full day out of each work week on pet projects that excite them. The only requirement is that they need to report on what they’re working on from time to time. Google reports that as much as 50 percent of the company’s innovations are the result of projects that employees have conceived and developed during flextime.
Second, empowered people like coming to work more—and who wouldn’t want the members on their team to actually look forward to coming to work? Besides being the right thing to do, creating an enjoyable team culture results in greater productivity, more innovation, and a significant impact on a company’s ability to attract and retain top talent.
Empowering the people on a team can also save a tremendous amount of time. When people know that we trust them and even expect them to make decisions without our input, we can eliminate having to think about and answer questions that they’re fully qualified to answer on their own. We are freed up to focus our energy on higher-level and more strategic aspects of our work, and on serving the members of our team.
This is vitally important for any leader, but especially for start-up entrepreneurs. One of the easiest ways to speed up the growth of a newer organization is to delegate as much responsibility as possible to others so that we can work on our business and our culture instead of being constantly caught up in the day-to-day operations.
Let’s look at some ideas and tools for helping us to become increasingly comfortable with extending high levels of trust to members of our team and truly empowering them, so that we can gradually make that a new mental habit.
The Power of Listening
A very simple way to empower others is to do less talking and more listening. As leaders, the more questions we ask and the more often we ask for help, the more successful we will tend to be. Asking lots of questions and listening more enables the intelligence of our team members to blossom.
There is a legitimate concern about giving team members “free rein” to do whatever is needed to wow customers. We might worry that they’ll spend more than is appropriate, or make some other kind of rash decision. Although I think it’s natural to have thoughts like this, there is really no need to worry about it because when we care for and trust people, they almost always do the right thing.
That being said, we can also reduce the risk of some anomaly to the general rule of people doing the right thing by setting boundaries that give members of our team some structure for how they can go about wowing a customer. This is as simple as placing a limit on how much a team member can spend on any single customer, which can vary depending on the margins of our products or services.
For example, the Ritz-Carlton brand sets a limit of $2,000 (your limit may be much lower for lower margin products or services). Leaders at the Ritz-Carlton are saying to team members, “We trust you do the right thing to make sure that our customers are 100 percent satisfied with their experience with us. You can be as creative as you like to make that happen, and spend as much as $2,000 per customer to make that happen.” In most cases, the employees spend almost nothing to come up with creative ways to wow a customer. But, when it’s necessary, employees have the freedom to make some big decisions without getting approval.
Core Values Make Decisions Easy
Well-designed core values should act as filters for decisions. When faced with a decision, people should be able to run the options through each of the core values, starting with the first. If an option would violate one of the core values, it can immediately be eliminated as a possible course of action. For instance, if one our core values is Long-term Success, when a member of our team has to decide whether to do something that will result in short-term gain, but could result in negative long-term consequences, she will know that the course of action being considered is not even an option.
Core values allow us to give team members even more autonomy. If our core values are well thought out, we should be able to say to the people we lead, “I hired you because I have great confidence that you will make good decisions. So, although you are welcome to seek my input on any decision, these are the only things that you need my approval on (there may be a several examples where you will want to have the final say). With everything else, provided that what you do is in line with our core values, it’s your call. I trust you to do the right thing. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. As long as it doesn’t violate our core values, making mistakes will just help you learn and grow.”
Please leave me a comment below if you apply these ideas. I’d love to hear about your experience.
This piece is an adapted excerpt from the book Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom.
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