Empowerment—DOs and DON’Ts

When pressure mounts at work is usually when leaders speak most of empowerment. In truth they are looking for greater initiative.  With high expectations to see an impact on performance, few things rile leaders more than advocating for employee empowerment and seeing  little employee initiative in return.

Left frustrated, leaders often rationalize this “apathy” as the sign that something is wrong with employee motivation: disinterest, laziness, stupidity, stubbornness, or the like. In isolated instances character “flaws” could be valid explanations, but if this perceived “apathy” is pervasive, something else is necessarily at work.

Trust — the Missing Link

When I look at situations where employees lack initiative, a strong correlation usually reveals itself with what leaders themselves are doing . Fundamentally a lack of engagement stems from the absence of trust in the leader. Trust builds from many different aspects, but two are critical for leaders: they must be trusted as leader and as a person.

Providing Context

From their own vantage point, leaders have a unique understanding of the pressures the organization faces, and of the trade-offs it needs to navigate. Because leaders work day in, day out with that knowledge, they not only easily forget that others cannot possibly have the same panoramic viewpoint, but they also fail to share that viewpoint with others in a consistent manner.  In short, it’s all clear in the leaders’ heads, but not in anyone else’s.

When people do not grasp the full context of what they experience at work, they make up their own explanations. Instead of one clear picture, a blurred reality develops that is as fragmented as there are individual perspectives. The absence of common ground hinders communications. In turn poor communications keep individuals from both personal initiative and effective coordination.

Clear Direction

Leaders often ask for employees to take initiative without being explicit about the results they expect, why such results are desirable, and what they are specifically. For most people it is disquieting to step out of the comfort and safety of routine when they do not have clear understanding of the outcomes they are expected to produce.

Transparent Accountability

Having stated the desired outcomes, leaders often omit establishing benchmarks of how results will be assessed. When employees are not sure how their performance will be appraised, they recoil from the very concept of accountability. If accountability is to be embraced rather than resisted, people who will be subject to performance measures must understand what they are, preferably by having participated in their establishment.

Transparent accountability also means that performance evaluation must be fair. There is little room for a leader to display favoritism; beware the toxicity of having “pets” and “scapegoats” on the overall atmosphere of the workplace .

You’re Being Watched

Leaders need to be aware of their own biases and blind spots. Individuals get most of their clues about whether to trust or not from observing their leaders’ behaviors. When leaders act in a manner inconsistent with they have said, employees retreat into self-protective behaviors. Trust requires that leaders walk their talk, that they behave with integrity.

Open Vulnerability

Asking people to take initiative implies that they are failing in some way; this is more likely to make them more cautious than act. Instead leaders can more powerfully phrase their requests by asking for help, by asking open-ended questions such as “What do we need to be doing to get back on track?”. When leaders ask for help openly, they display that they don’t know everything. Such admission of  “vulnerability” draws in and engages others. Of course, this has to be authentic. The leader, having just asked for help, cannot go on to show little care for others’ concerns.

Mind your Words and Listen

Peremptory remarks such as: “It’s not that difficult”; “It’s pretty simple”; “It should not take you long” are great empowerment-killers. The message the employee hears is usually: “If you can’t do this, there is a problem with you.” And which employees in their right minds would want to reinforce that impression by asking questions? Better stay confused that appear incompetent.

Leaders must make time to hear others out about the obstacles they encounter and the resources they need in order to deliver the results the leaders want. If not, employees will not trust them to be fair and supportive.

Show Respect

Seemingly innocuous behaviors have a strong impact on employee trust. Showing irritation at the lack of initiative but also impatience when staffers ask questions and propose new ideas (rolling eyes, heavy sighing, or plain not paying attention) all reinforce a message very different from the leader may actually say. The risk of punishment for trying and failing is likely higher than the reward for taking initiative and succeeding.

Showing respect to employees has a strong positive impact on initiative. It encourages employees to trust that their leader will not use his or her position of power to embarrass or berate them in front of others.

Use of Power

Misuse of authority as a substitute for leadership is a common mistake. Small abuses of authority or power often go unnoticed by leaders. The use of authority to make others feel inadequate is a highly toxic behavior. Something as simple as a disparaging witty remark has an immediate devastating impact on trust. People witnessing the incident will shy away from trusting the leader, whether they are the target of the remark or not, and more importantly, whether the leader is responsible for the remark itself, or just condoning  the behavior by not stopping it.


Applying rules consistently is a basic requirement to create a framework for employee initiative. Managing by exception, i.e., changing the rules frequently, may feel like a leader’s prerogative but it stunts initiative. When employees cannot anticipate their boss’s thinking, they will wait things out rather than act because the risk of being out of line is too high.

Empowerment and Initiative

Generating a culture of initiative is squarely in the hands of leaders. Empowerment comes with the obligation for leaders to provide clarity, establish trust and create transparent accountability. It also requires that leaders develop self-awareness and understand how what they say and do will either encourage employees to be open, take initiative and collaborate, or cause them to withdraw into safe routine behaviors.

Things to Remember

Empowerment is about what leaders do every day:

  • Take the time to focus conversations on the direction in which the organization needs to be headed, even in the midst of challenges;
  • Elicit open interactions to understand obstacles and create realistic solutions;
  • Track performance against transparent objectives; and
  • Avoid the temptation to tell their staff how to do their work (especially important when the leader cannot possibly know what the work entails.)


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