There’s a significant shift developing as GenXers and Millennials take on leadership positions. Employees now want creative ownership—an expectation that contrasts sharply with traditional views on leadership. “Today, people believe that their value is in their ideas and creativity, not in their ability to be agents for someone else’s vision,” explains John Sandahl, Executive Team Coach at CO2.
Moving forward, successful leaders will have to model themselves as coaches rather than commanders in control. The new imperative is to build environments that promote employee empowerment and enable people to become valuable assets rather than expendable tools.
Why coaches? Because a coach’s job is not to tell people what to do—it’s to ask questions that spark new ways of thinking. Beyond imparting knowledge, they empower others to seek answers on their own. To build the coaching culture that today’s fast-paced markets demand, leaders will have to check their egos at the door and learn to empower others to take their turn in the spotlight.
From commander to coach
Leaders tend to overvalue their input and undervalue that of their team. While most people will be quick to blame this on fear of losing control, in many cases, we see that leaders micromanage because they don’t want their teams to fail.
Recalling an experience with a coaching client, Sandahl illustrates how this type of thinking can hurt organizations. During a meeting with leadership, a team concluded that a practice they’d adopted in hopes of boosting sales and performance was not proving to be successful. While everyone agreed that it was time for a new strategy, the leader played their veto card and declined all changes.
The move had a chilling effect. Why are we discussing this if you’re going to put your foot down and say ‘No’? After speaking with the leader in private, it became clear they were worried that their team would not be able to fix things if they made the wrong call. “The leader was not willing to let their team struggle because they felt they had a better idea,” explains Sandahl.
Even when well-intended, micromanaging can undermine agility and foster a culture where people don’t feel trusted to do the right thing. In this case, the leader’s blindsiding veto conveyed skepticism in their team’s competence rather than concern. And it ensured that people hesitated before discussing new ideas in the future. Ultimately, the leader agreed with the team’s decision and now they had an even bigger task ahead: rebuilding their team’s confidence and learning how to let them take charge.
What can leaders do to avoid falling into a similar trap and advance employee empowerment?
Learn to let go
Micromanagers wear themselves out sweating the small stuff—winding up too exhausted and overwhelmed to take on the big, bet-the-business decisions where their input is most valuable. In their quest to keep their finger in every pie, they deprive themselves of precious time, thwart initiative, and rob others of their sense of achievement. “When things aren’t getting done fast enough or you feel like you have to do an excessive amount of hand-holding, Sandhal advises to ask yourself two questions: What’s getting in the way? How much of it is me?”
Learning to relinquish control demands setting ego aside and creating high-trust cultures where the will to build something bigger trumps the fear of failure. This starts with hiring driven and creative thinkers you can trust to make the right decision. By pushing the work down, you’ll build up your team’s decision-making skills, nurture a sense of ownership, and free up time to focus on what matters.
Resist the urge to step in
Suppose your team is working on an outline for a new project and they bring it to you. A well-meaning leader may be tempted to say: “That looks great. Get to work on it!”. But that tiny sign-off on your part is enough to usurp responsibility from the people directly involved in crafting the plan. Whether things go well or not—but especially if they don’t—your team’s off the hook because you’re ultimately making the decision.
One of the most challenging dilemmas for leaders who seek to build cultures of empowerment is how to respond when their team seeks their input. Resisting the urge to give the nod is hard when you’re in charge and know the right way to do things. In such cases, Sandhal advises that leaders shift their focus to coaching their teams so they can consistently make good decisions.
“Don’t tell them how to do things, and don’t step in with your approval—you’ll disempower them as soon as you do this,” he explains. Instead, leaders should make guidelines and decision-making rights crystal clear and, when people come to them for advice, nudge them in the right direction with insightful questions rather than prescriptive instructions.
Build a sense of ownership
Traditionally, managers have looked at employee empowerment as a process where, once people have proved themselves worthy, they’ll slowly get more opportunities to make decisions and think creatively. This approach doesn’t work as well anymore. “People want to have some skin in the game—they want to feel like they’re creating something,” explains Sandahl.
He further highlights how excessive upward reporting can blur the lines between informing and asking for permission. Beyond defining decision-making rights, leaders must ask themselves At what point should I get involved–if at all?. “We want leaders to come in, provide guidance and strategic direction—and then pull themselves out of the fray as quickly as possible so others can assume ownership,” adds Sandahl.
Coaching for Employee Empowerment
The first step in a leader’s evolution as a coach is building a learning culture. Sandahl recommends four vital elements inspired by the self-determination theory that can help leaders build thriving learning cultures:
- Autonomy. Does your team feel they have a say in what happens to them daily?
- Belonging. Do people in your organization feel part of something bigger than themselves?
- Competence. Are you providing learning opportunities that help build your team’s confidence in their abilities?
- Meaning. Are you helping employees make the connection between peoples’ day-to-day and the organization’s overall mission and vision?
“Ultimately, coaching is about guiding others to unlock the best within themselves,” says Sandahl. “Leaders must start believing in their people. Let them learn and make decisions—and give them permission to fail.”