Making Empowerment Stick

Let me know if this sounds familiar: You talk about empowerment with your staff, at skip levels, and at town hall meetings. It’s a concept you reinforce over and over again within your organization. And yet you still observe teams asking for permission in situations where you want them to make decisions and drive actions. You still find yourself as the bottleneck, giving tactical approvals on topics you don’t feel require your input.

There’s a good chance you’re the reason a culture of empowerment hasn’t taken hold.

Reasons for Resistance

One of the most common reasons this cultural change fails is that the organization is given inadequate direction by the leadership. Employees hear they have autonomy, but they aren’t told which decisions they are and are not expected to make on their own. In other words, you’re not being specific enough.

To complicate matters, the organization gets mixed messages. Leaders who sincerely want an empowered organization, also do not want to seem authoritarian. When discussing a decision, they use phrases like “This is what I would do, but it’s really up to the team.” The problem is when such phrases are used both when leaders are truly offering their take and when they strongly prefer things done a certain way. If the team picks the wrong interpretation, a leader can get frustrated. When the team perceives the leader’s frustration, they will be less likely to take an empowered approach on their next decision.

Provide your organization with a framework for identifying where and when an employee has decision-making authority. There will be some decisions that are always made by a leader, and other decisions teams can make independently. Success lies in making it crystal clear which decisions fall into which category.

The Empowerment Framework

Decisions should fall into one of three categories based on how they are made. They are intentionally not categorized by how important the outcome is, or how they apply to a given project or initiative. The categories are a reflection of how involved you want to be as a leader.

1. Decisions You Own

Some decisions will not be made democratically—they will be made by you. The team’s job is to prepare the necessary context and data for each option to ensure you have the right information. At times, it may be appropriate for the team to make a recommendation and facilitate a discussion. However, you’re the one who makes the ultimate decision.

Decisions that fall into this category are those you absolutely need to have your stamp on; those that will be seen as a reflection on you personally. They often have a direct impact on your reputation. In such situations, it’s completely fair that you have absolute influence over what course of action is taken.

2. Decisions You Influence

With some decisions, you will play the same role as everyone else who is consulted. You will be one voice among many. The message to your team is to use their own judgement above all else. Your input should be taken as a data point.

Decisions that fall into this category are those for which you have an opinion to contribute, and are interesting to you personally. You want to be involved, however, you are willing to defer decision making authority and will be supportive of the team’s ultimate decision.

3. Decisions You Don’t Touch

Teams should make some decisions entirely on their own. They will be empowered to use their judgement to make informed and effective decisions, and shouldn’t feel the need to run things by you for buy-in. You have fully empowered them to move forward.

Decisions that fall into this category can still be important. There are many reasons why your participation may not be valuable or necessary. Perhaps the topic is not within your area of expertise, or it’s not an area you feel passionate about. Perhaps the team members are more qualified to make the decision on their own and it will not be perceived as a personal reflection on you.

Getting On the Same Page 

To help drive the cultural change you’re looking for, create a matrix to serve as a visual reference. Document all the work your team performs. The work topics should cover the full range of what the organization does and should not be limited to discrete projects or short-term initiatives. List each work topic under one of the above decision-making categories.

Sample Empowerment Matrix

Leaders have been successful putting a matrix together on their own and sharing it, or by running a workshop with their direct reports to build the matrix as a team. The latter option can drive further accountability and alignment with leadership.


Empowerment is a critical team attribute. Too often, leaders are all talk and no action when it comes to supporting the spread of decision-making autonomy across the organization. Or they send mixed messages, which undermine the effort.

Use a framework to define which decisions need to be made by leaders, which are to be influenced by leaders, and which are to be made independently of leaders. Only then will employees be empowered with confidence.

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