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How to empower a person or team that won’t take charge themselves

It’s written (a lot) that managers today should spend most of their efforts giving the people on their team autonomy and freedom in their work. You’re told, “Give people on your team a chance to impress you. Let them make mistakes and own their roles.”

Of course, giving up control is a challenge. But for managers who do it, they’re often rewarded with peers and employees who are more engaged and do better work.

But what happens when you try to give autonomy to your team and they don’t want it?

This week, we got an email from a reader asking, in part:

“My team structure is unusual and this is my biggest problem right now – getting the most out of them.

How can I change the way that they think about themselves to make them proactively seek out new development to make them suitable for up-skilling to take on more responsibilities?”

He went on to explain that he had asked them to set the agendas for their 1:1, but none of them had risen to the challenge. He also said they only take on new tasks when assigned; no one is proactively seeking out new work, despite his efforts to encourage them to take risks.

What would you do in this situation?


Why people don’t step up

Before you assume that the people on your team who don’t step up are lazy or disengaged, it’s important to realize there are actually a lot of really significant reasons why people shy away from opportunities to take the lead in their work.

Here are just a few:

Fear of being wrong or embarrassed.

Even the boldest among us has felt the wave of discomfort that comes from saying the wrong thing in front of a room of people. And for a lot of people, that moment of discomfort teaches us an unfortunate lesson, “Better to stay quiet and not be wrong, than to risk being embarrassed again.” And while this can be undone, it isn’t always easy and doesn’t always come naturally.

A great manager needs to coax and encourage the people on their team to speak up, and to help them rise up and see it is just part of the journey when they fail. This often involves creating an entire team culture that welcomes participation and doesn’t dwell on mistakes as long as progress continues to be made.

Past bosses who discouraged their efforts.

Even though you want your team to be empowered, their last boss (or possibly even you, at some point in your time with them) discouraged them from taking the lead. Bosses do this for all kinds of reasons, and even if they don’t mean the damage to be lasting, people are usually pretty tuned into their boss’ reactions and expectations of them.

Managers who say things like “this is just the way we’ve always done things” or who insist “it’s my way or the highway” can teach the people on their team that the path of least resistance is always the better choice.

And unfortunately for you, a person who has been discouraged from stepping up in the past isn’t likely to do it again, for fear about being turned down or looking stupid again. You may need to make it extra clear that this is something you want in order to get people to do it.

Past experiences speaking up and being shot down.

It sucks to get rejected, and just like in the scenarios above, people can learn pretty quickly to stop bringing up their ideas if they keep getting shot down. Does this happen on your team or in your company?

This can take lots of forms, both obvious and subtle. Sometimes ideas get shot down actively, like when someone proposes something in a meeting and another person says, “That won’t work.” It can also happen when someone proposes an idea, gets a halfhearted commitment from their leader or team, and then nothing happens. Soon enough, people will learn to stop trying.

They think they don’t have the skills to lead.

Would you offer to fly the plane if you were in a group of trained pilots? Probably not. You’d leave it to the experts, right? Well that’s how a lot of people feel at work. They assume they don’t have the skills to lead (or do any number of things you wish they would) and so they don’t do those things.

This might be because they are young, or just because they’ve never been given the opportunity to try, or maybe they are just hard on themselves. Either way, it is your job to help them see that they either have the skills already or that they are capable of learning to do amazing things.

Just not interested.

There will always be some people who truly aren’t interested in being a leader. It doesn’t mean they’re not good at their job or that they don’t like their work; it just means that they aren’t interested in stepping up, and won’t be that happy if you try to force them to. This is worth knowing.

Just like you may know to avoid scheduling morning meetings with your star engineer does their best productive work in the morning, you may discover certain people on your team need more handholding and direction than others.

If they do good work, you should adjust your expectations and how you interact with them accordingly.

Of course, there are people who are lazy or disengaged. But it’s important not to jump to that conclusion first, and instead to take time to understand where your people are coming from. Don’t assume the worst; if you give people the benefit of the doubt and take the time to understand them and set your expectations (for them and yourself) accordingly, most of the time you will be pleasantly surprised.

And by the way, check yourself here. It’s not impossible that *you* are the reason the people on your team are afraid of stepping up.

  • How do you react internally when people bring you a new idea?
  • How do you react externally?
  • What is the last self-directed project someone on your team has done? Are you happy with how recent that was?

Next time someone brings you an idea, listen to your internal voice. Feel your physical reaction. Are you smiling? Tense? Are you thinking, “Oh boy, here we go…”?

The better you understand what is going on with you, the better you’ll understand what you are communicating to your team. And when you know what you are doing, you can control your actions and responses to better encourage and empower your team.

How to inspire and empower your team

Once you’ve dug into what might be motivating your teams lack of motivation, you can start to do something about it.

Show, don’t tell, that you value leadership

Managers who want the people on their team to feel empowered have to do more than tell their team to step up to the plate. They have to demonstrate through their actions that they really do value leadership. This means being public in praising risk-takers and results-getters, and being enthusiastic and open to new ideas whenever they are presented (even if they’re not great, you have to be willing to dive in and help them shape it into something awesome).

Give them opportunities to take the lead

As we learned above, people often have lots of good reasons for not taking the initiative to lead themselves. So it is your responsibility to show them the way, by teaching them how to take the lead.

A great example of this is asking questions; when someone asks you for help, simply reply with, “What do you think we should do?”. This technique is so subtly powerful, because it gives authority back to the people on your team. It shows you value their judgment and that you want them to show you how amazing they are.

For a quick-but-in-depth look at how to do this technique effectively, check out this video from a former submarine captain who taught every member of his crew to be their own commander.

Find a coaching style that works for each individual on your team

I love this post that KateM wrote on different coaching styles. Essentially, she explains in the post, you need to get to truly know the people on your team in order to understand how best to work with them. Some people thrive with tons of autonomy, and others shine when they know they have lots of support backing them up.

When you know what your people need to succeed (and trust me, it is different for every single person), you will be able to give them the confidence and skills they need to thrive in their role.

Teach them & show the value of the skills they need to lead

In our example way back at the beginning of this post, our emailer was wondering why people didn’t take the opportunity to set their own agendas for their 1:1 meetings.

Well, if they’ve been working in an unsupportive culture up until this point, it’s possible they don’t even know what a good 1:1 looks like. Or they might not see why they should take the extra time every week to start setting the agenda for a meeting they see as their boss’ responsibility.

That’s where you come in. Giving people autonomy can often look like you’re just giving people more work and less help. So don’t skip out on the help part.

When you ask people to do their own 1:1 meeting agendas, don’t just throw them in the deep end. If they are hesitant or don’t do the work, try sitting with them to come up with 20 1:1 meeting topics you’d like to do over the next few months; then once you’re through those topics, make it their responsibility to own making those lists for the future. And make sure you have explained why you think 1:1s are important and valuable, not just for you, but what they can gain from it.

Don’t give up

Learning new skills and ways of working is challenging for everyone; even if you like where you are heading, it can still be challenging to get there if it’s brand new. So stick with the people on your team. As you encourage and help them to become more autonomous, don’t forget that it is always your job to help them succeed even more.

Keep looking for ways to help and make it easier and more appealing to be a leader on your team. And soon you will have that team of mini-CEOs owning their roles that will help you do amazing things.


Tags: culture, fear, inspiration, leadership, management, team,

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