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Three stages to empowering a workforce: Stepping in, stepping out and stepping up

Learn how to navigate the complexities of empowerment, from fostering autonomy to encouraging strategic contributions.

Making distributed leadership work depends greatly on your people’s preferences, stretch and personal development path. It’s easy to misdirect and be inconsistent across the organization, which is why there is a strong need to create the conditions for empowered, autonomous work to thrive. This must be driven by the executive board and leadership team and reinforced by repurposed line management approaches throughout the business. 

Once the conditions have been created, the next step is empowering individuals in the right way. This is about working smarter, more autonomously and more productively, with strong alignment to organizational, team and individual goals. Empowerment is not always about doing more, extra or incremental activity on top of the “day job”. This is an important myth to dispel early in conversations. Empowerment can sometimes drive incremental effort but is more often about working smarter, activating a personal development journey, and business growth.

Each person should own their empowered role in the organization with the support of management, rather than always being supervised. This makes all the difference, as it also creates the basis for a true coaching culture across the organization: a line management that is more focused on performance support rather than almost wholly on performance management.

This is something that should be repeatedly called for, as it enables a much more glued-together, collaborative workforce, which transcends traditional levels, layers, perceptions and expectations.

There are three “right” ways to empower the workforce – ie, ways suited to the organization and the individuals unleashing their inner CEO. These represent three stages of empowerment, from taking ownership within a job role to more strategic contribution and involvement. The stages do not necessarily represent a linear journey but provide a platform for internal planning, discussion and involvement with the broader organization from day one. Individual contributors should be supported by their line management to find the right stage for them, based on personal preference as to where they feel they can best contribute. 

There is certainly an evolved “will” and “skill” component to work through collaboratively.

Stage 1: Stepping in

An individual’s leadership can be enhanced within their current role without necessarily going beyond the boundaries of their job description or team. This means being more productive and efficient every day.

It’s about being unleashed to make decisions without going to a manager, problem-solving independently and/or with others, ideas generation, team plays and implementation and new ways of collaborating. 

“Stepping in is a great way to get people to do more work.” This is our first myth to bust. Stepping in means greater autonomy within a specific role, enhancing that role. This will also benefit and often involve other team members. Those stepping into the job role with other team members should set daily challenges, take ownership beyond the day-to-day role and lead team projects to encourage problem-solving and innovation. 

A starting point for a more collaborative initial conversation and a tailored way forward for everyone involved, line managers should also encourage coaching support, with regular reviews, enable ideas and discussions outside of the team, set up peer coaching circles within the team and build skills on the job and corporate activity to enable greater empowerment. 

This is not an exhaustive list but a starting point for a more collaborative initial conversation and a tailored way forward for everyone involved. 

Many of these ideas, we could argue, are implied in a job description. However, often only the minimum is done, or we get caught up with admin, unproductive tasks and other people’s agendas. Stepping in helps us seize the initiative and own our job role and how we execute day to day.

Stage 2: Stepping out

The best operational performers and most experienced team members may not have ambitions to move up the organization or on to other jobs, but they could still have the knowledge, skills and will to contribute beyond their team. This offers a new engagement play and great fulfilment for the individual, reinforcing their worth to the company, the function and the team.

Increasingly, the need to formalize cross-functional, cross-regional and more diverse project groups offers a great opportunity for individuals and even teams to step out of their day-to-day roles.

Stepping out allows for greater internal community building, which is fundamental in bolstering culture and also the values and behaviors suited to a truly empowering organization.

Ideas for those stepping out to the broader function, or on cross-functional collaboration initiatives, projects and tasks relevant to the operational efficiency of the organization include, sharing within the function to adopt best practices, attending cross-functional trade shows or community work outside the business and reflecting new ways of working through collaborative skills building. 

For management to enable support and recognition of those stepping out, they should be encouraging coaching support for relevant team members, and setting up a support system of formal line support and informal mentoring for special project teams, within the function or cross-functionally.

Stage 3: Stepping up

Those with the potential for a greater stretch – for example, identified future executive leaders – can be involved in special projects that require something extra. They might attend senior management meetings and contribute more strategically to the business.

This stretch must be balanced so as not to jeopardize deliverables in their core role. This may involve incremental effort or activity and is closely aligned to the longer-term development aims of the individual and their contribution to the organization, as much as empowering the individual in the short term.

This may not be for everyone, but in the spirit of distributed leadership and a true age of empowerment, people will have the right and choice to stretch themselves beyond their job role. It is most likely high performance will most comfortably sit in this group, however, as they are on top of their operational role, delivering results and demonstrating a desire to go beyond the role, function and discipline.

Stepping up allows individuals to demonstrate their broader competence, attitude and capability to other functions, across to other line managers and up the line to the leadership level – through to the executive C-suite. They need to be strongly supported and sponsored as important future talent to retain and maintain engagement with.

The three stages of stepping in, stepping out and stepping up must be supported and enabled by a flatter structure that equips line managers and executive leaders to support individuals. A horizontal management structure enables an authentic effort to boost empowerment across the business, without reliance on traditional layers and levels. 

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