In a leadership workshop earlier this month at Summa Health in Akron, OH, a manager shared one of the most definitive, straightforward affirmations of true staff empowerment that I’ve ever heard. She explained that often when an issue or problem arises, by the time she becomes aware of it and approaches her team to work through a solution, she is confidently told, “Don’t worry; the village has it handled.”
Empowerment is a frequently vaunted goal for high-functioning teams in today’s leadership literature. But while the term is commonly accepted, I’m not sure it best describes the true power of empowerment. When I clicked on the thesaurus feature in Microsoft Word while writing this post, I actually found a much better list of options: inspire, embolden, encourage, galvanize, rouse and energize.
But even these more inspirational verbs still miss the most important point for leaders to understand about creating an environment where teams take charge: true empowerment isn’t granted by a manager. It only occurs when accepted by individuals and teams. In other words, the wisdom of “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” applies to empowerment.
An environment in which staff take ownership for providing the very best, safe, compassionate care possible is created over time in many ways. Structured opportunities for shared decision-making and small-group problem solving help instill a sense of responsibility among team members. But these important efforts can be undermined if a leader doesn’t support empowerment literally every day in the language she uses with her team.
Following are five straightforward statements that reflect and reinforce a culture of true empowerment:
1. “What do you think?”
Consistently asking employees their opinions on both routine and more substantive issues is one of the most clear-cut ways to build a culture of empowerment. Of course, when they tell you what they think, you have to be willing to thoughtfully consider their advice or the inquiry is empty and meaningless.
2. “I trust you.”
Knowing that their manager trusts their judgment is essential for employees to take the risk of voicing their ideas and getting involved in finding solutions.
3. “Your solution is better than mine.”
A manager that encourages employees to step up, take ownership and be part of the solution must be a confident, humble manager. Especially newer managers sometimes make the mistake of thinking that they must have all of the answers. When they don’t, they fear that it makes them look weak and ineffective. But in reality, the opposite is generally true. This philosophy is not unfounded or untested: the belief that employees at the frontline will come up with a better solution is at the heart of LEAN and other forward-thinking performance improvement methods.
4. “Let’s talk about why that didn’t work.”
Employees don’t always have the best answer, either individually or collectively. But strong managers recognize that making mistakes is part of the learning process. Unless they are done willfully or maliciously, mistakes deserve constructive feedback, not punishment. That said, good leaders also are there to guide and provide advice to members of their teams to prevent disastrous mistakes that could cause irreparable damage.
5. “Thank you.”
A culture of appreciation when employees step up and go that extra mile ensures that they will come back tomorrow ready to do the same thing again. I always cringe when I hear organizations that try to make recognition of employee efforts a “program.” There’s nothing wrong with structured rewards, but they don’t take the place of a manager frequently and sincerely looking an employee in the eyes and simply saying those two powerful words … “thank you” for what you’ve done and the difference you make.
If we want our “villages” to step up and consistently take ownership for improving care, we as leaders must be conscious of the messages we’re sending to our team each and every day. Leader communication that encourages innovation, expresses appreciation and reinforces our confidence in the team makes a powerful difference in building a culture of true empowerment.
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