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Empower and empowered, either way, they’re active words.

Activating power—that's what empowering is. It feels good to talk about. But are we forgetting the action part?

Can we talk about the word “empower” for a second? 

I want to empower my team.
I want to be empowered.

I hear this often, and it’s great. But there’s a bit of a problem, too.

Like the words mentor and strategic, “empower” is thrown into sentences like fairy dust. It’s as if people think just adding it will make magic happen.

By definition, empower is a transitive verb, meaning there needs to be an action that activates the power. Well-meaning managers and individuals are doing lots of things related to empowerment—but it’s not exactly taking action. So what do I see instead? Here are a few examples.

#1: INSPIRING

There’s that adage of “If you can see it you can be it,” and I agree with it 100%. By inspiring someone, you’re offering up a model of what they could be. I love this; I’m inspired all the time. But inspiration creates possibility, not necessarily action. Want to take things a step further and empower your audience? You might try asking your team to present on how they’re going to apply the ideas to their own lives.

#2: TEACHING 

In the awesome-lady-space especially, workshops on how to negotiate pay are pretty common. I’m a HUGE fan of the lesson. But what these classes usually share are tactics and tools, which is teaching, different from empowering. 

Here’s an idea.

Imagine for a second there was a compensation conversation with managers and their teams. A no-stakes situation where the only expectation is to practice. How fantastic would that be? Practicing negotiation with a friend or co-worker is terrific, but honing your skills with someone who can adjust your salary? That’s so much better.

#3: COMMISSIONING

I’ve fallen into this trap more times than I can count. (If you’re leading a team, I guess that you have, too.) Here’s how it goes: I assign a team member a project. I intend to empower the person to set the strategy, lead discussions, and drive critical decisions. But in reality, I have a bit of a vision in my head of what the finished “product” needs to be. And that’s what I’m trying to get my team member to deliver.

If you’re asking a team to build what’s in your mind’s eye, however vague the picture it might be, then you’re commissioning the team, not empowering them. 

What makes empowering someone so tricky? You might need to inspire and teach along the way, but the team members can’t just be in the role of taking in the inspiration and teaching. As a manager, you have to figure out how to remove potential impediments, step back, and let the other person take the active role.

I also want to hold up the mirror up to those of you who are team members. If you’re reading this thinking, “Yes, I want to be empowered!” there’s an active role in this process for you, too. 

I’ve lost count of the number of times where I’ve heard a speaker make a call to action so the audience can manifest awesomeness. And while inspired-as-all-heck, still nothing happens. 

Next time you’re inspired, give yourself time to figure out what a good first step might be—and then take it. 

I’ve also seen multiple leaders throw out ideas, and watched the team treat those ideas like a commission rather than something they are empowered to drive. Are you waiting for permission to act? You don’t always need to. 

So I come back to my original statement. Empower or empowered, either way, they’re active words. 

So which action will you take today?

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