How to Lead a Culture from Power to Empowerment

The world is getting more complex and complicated. Inside organizations there are more customers with more choices, more requirements, more conflicting demands and faster changes. Pile on top of that pandemics, racial tensions, busyness, and noise and it’s really tough to get the right things done at the right time and keep good people. There isn’t a quick fix, but there is a simple one if you are willing to dedicate the time, effort, and discipline.

We need to go back to the basics of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and create cultures of safety, belonging, and accomplishment. To feel safe we need to understand ourselves and understand others. To feel like we belong we have to understand how we fit and what’s expected. To feel accomplished we have to understand how we win and how the game is played. There are 3 areas I see getting in the way of us creating cultures of safety, belonging, and accomplishment: 

  1. Lack of clarity when recruiting, onboarding, and developing people.
  2. Individualistic and divisive behaviors getting in the way of a cooperative, inclusive culture.
  3. Inability to measure progress and give people a sense of accomplishment.

Let’s break down lack of clarity. As humans we aren’t great at setting clear expectations. It takes focus and discipline to determine and then communicate what we really want. When we bring people into a work environment there are several questions we can walk through to set people up for success and avoid frustration.

  • Does the person understand themselves and their strengths and weaknesses? 
  • Are we clear about what we want? (skills, characteristics, values)
  • Is there clarity around the work to be done? (client experience, handoffs, etc.)
  • Can we define what it means to win? 
  • Is it safe to ask for help and where do we go for it?

When cannot clearly articulate what, why, and how we do things down to behavioral norms and minimum expectations, people aren’t comfortable being themselves, don’t feel empowered to take risks and experiment, and are often scared to speak up for fear of retribution. Constant communication helps us evolve. We need to do our part to slow down and be clear and create opportunities to ask questions. 

Once we get the basics of safety covered, we can move to creating an inclusive, cooperative culture. This one is tough because we naturally surround ourselves with similar people and perspectives. We determine there is a right way and wrong way which squashes compromise. Often without knowing it, we blame others when things go wrong vs. embracing failure and looking for the lessons which makes it hard to take risks or have different opinions. Group think sets in. How do you rate on building inclusivity and cooperation? Ask yourself:

  • How do we include diverse viewpoints?
  • How do we celebrate differences?
  • How do we deal with conflict?
  • How do we handle failure?
  • How do we recognize and reward diverse thought and skillsets?

Creating a culture of belonging takes intentional investment. We have to really get to know people and understand how they tick. We have to recognize and celebrate the fact that we all have different world views based on our personal histories and experiences. It’s important to find ways to understand and honor those. 

It’s also important to think strategically about what you celebrate within your organization. Do we celebrate diverse viewpoints? Do we see failure as an opportunity to learn? Do we celebrate people that win the right way or just people who bring in the biggest dollars no matter how they treat people. All of these behaviors send a message about your organization and create a sense of what it means to belong, deliberate or not.

Now that we have walked through safety and belonging, let’s talk about creating a sense of accountability which is fundamental in keeping the environment focused on the positive and keeping people engaged.

The old world was full of issues that were technical in nature meaning it was easy to identify the issue, change needed to happen in one or a few places, and things could be implemented quickly. In today’s world most of our problems are adaptive in nature meaning it’s hard to identify the root cause, solutions often require changes in values, beliefs, roles, relationships and approaches to work which can be complex and take time.

Adaptive problems and a constant need for change make it really hard to provide people with a sense of accomplishment in their jobs. This is why understanding the “why” has become so important. We are trying to instill autonomy, cooperation, and curiosity to get things done vs. give directions to complete a task. We are trying to create thinkers vs. order takers who can adapt to the changing landscape inside and outside our organizations.

  • How do we help people understand what we do? 
  • How do we instill pride in what each person contributes?
  • How do people know their contribution makes a difference? 
  • How do we measure learning, progress, and growth?

It’s not always linear so how do we show progress in some way? We want to know why this matters, and that we’re spending our waking hours doing something meaningful. It doesn’t have to be meaningful in a worldly way, but that we are contributing to the whole and to building something or learning something new. Be sure your team understands how they contribute and can feel a sense of accomplishment.

At the end of the day, what we all want is to feel safe, to feel like we belong, and to know that we are contributing in a meaningful way. We want yes answers to these questions: Can I be myself? Am I supported? How do I learn, grow, and contribute? I know this because this is my firsthand experience. 

In college, work was my safe place. I was in an abusive relationship and 6 hours from home in a town where I knew no one. My employer didn’t know what was happening at home, but work felt like the only place I could be myself and feel safe. You can give that to someone.

A few years into my career I led sales and marketing for a new division we were building from the ground up. Most of my colleagues were operations or engineering backgrounds. In my first leadership review I was labeled an “aggressive b.” (We all know what that means) I’ll never forget my leader helping me through that. He challenged me understand myself better, assured me that I did belong and validated the value of my different skillset and approach, and worked with the rest of the team to see beyond my sometimes tough exterior to my heart. You can do that for someone.

When I was struggling in a sales role where we were trying something new and constantly changing direction, my leader would gather specific feedback and data points of progress from those I worked with to help validate my efforts when we weren’t seeing them at the top or bottom line like we wanted. He was the reason I stayed and worked my butt off even though my efforts weren’t reflected in my paycheck because we weren’t seeing the results. He helped me see what I was accomplishing, how I was learning and growing. You can help someone that way.

I hope you don’t get so caught up in what’s to be done that you forget the impact you have on the lives of those you lead. We need leaders dedicated to creating environments of safety, belonging, and accomplishment. Once we do that, the rest will fall into place.

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