Empowering team members may seem like a tired topic, but its ubiquity exists for a reason. For startups, it’s a make-or-break proposition.
The simple definition of empowerment -- to enable or permit -- is drab, but the type of empowerment that I find valuable involves inspiring team members to become better than they are today.
These are my strategies for giving employees the confidence they need to succeed and work well together:
1. Be mindful of the when and where.
Empowerment is a great thing when it’s done appropriately and in the right amount. Telling people they’re better than they are will only lead to their downfall, as will comparing them to their co-workers. In fact, one study of 1,500 furniture salespeople found that employees who focused on their own performance notched more sales than those who knew their rankings among their peers.
However, it’s important to provide encouragement when employees have put in their best effort. Make sure to use language that treats them as partners and doesn’t demean them as lowly staff. Simply asking “What could we have done better?” instead of “What could you have done better?” shows respect and encourages a more collaborative mindset.
2. Reward creative ideas.
Establish a culture that drives people to bring creative ideas to the table. Whether it’s a simple recognition email or a trip to a convention, show visible appreciation for contributions that go above and beyond their day-to-day duties.
Using Lean Startup principles allows empowered employees to present personal project ideas to be voted on by the broader team. If their skill sets and the company budget allow, let team members be entrepreneurs within the company. Prior to starting a project, make projections to help measure its success. Not all employees will have the experience or skills to work within this model, but it will inspire some and give them a sense of ownership and belonging.
3. Embrace extracurricular activities.
Schedule events outside the daily tasks of the company to encourage fresh ideas and stimulate minds. This could be as simple as a team lunch or as involved as a company retreat. At InList, we introduced a biweekly empowerment meeting. For one hour, we watch content that’s only meant to uplift and motivate. We watch TED Talks, YouTube videos and clips from speakers such as YouTube wine guru Gary Vaynerchuk, summarizing what we learned from each.
I implemented this because I realized team members were getting tunnel vision, unable to see anything beyond what was in front of them. While it’s important to be focused on the matters at hand, it’s also necessary to take a step back and understand the grand scheme of things. Team members who don’t see the long-term vision or don’t feel empowered will be quick to jump ship. To them, it’s only about the money.
4. Don’t confuse rogue employees with empowered team members.
A few years ago, I hired a very smart programmer -- a genius, in fact. However, he was too smart for his own good. He couldn’t work well in a team environment and was always switching from one invention to the next, lacking the focus and perseverance to see his ideas through to fruition. When I did give him a pet project, he would quickly become sidetracked.
It was sad for me to see the waste of potential, but it was also a good lesson. Empowered team members should share the vision of the company, work well with others and keep their ego in check. Show them examples of failures that occurred when people acted alone. An individual needs a network of trusted people if he ever wants to branch out and be successful on his own.
Employee empowerment is a common topic of discussion for a reason: It’s important to help employees understand why they do what they do to get results, attract better talent and avoid employee burnout. Empowered and inspired employees aren’t paycheck collectors. They’re in it for self-improvement, making them motivated to learn, go the extra mile and come up with creative solutions on their own.