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Empowering people

  • Overview
  • Exercises


Research shows us that we produce our best results when we feel enthusiastic and confident. We feel most fulfilled when we feel 'can-do' - when we stretch ourselves to the edge of that confidence and succeed.

When doubts creep in, and we start to feel 'can't-do', our enthusiasm falters - and all the reasons we might fail come flooding right back.

Some teams - and whole organisations - ooze can-do, while others are cynical and lethargic. What makes the difference? How can you turn a sluggish culture around? Or stop it happening in the first place?

What can you do as a team leader to give people that confidence?

Saying thank you

Let’s start with the no-cost easy stuff: decent human behaviour.

Build people’s belief in themselves by thanking them for what they have done for the team. Their ideas, their contributions, their accomplishments. The ability to express appreciation and respect is a hallmark of great leaders and teams1. It affirms people’s worth.

Even if the ideas weren’t used or you didn’t win the contract in spite of everyone's best efforts, sincere thanks mean a lot. Mention specifics, and people by name.

If you did get the contract, celebrate. Pick out the little things that everyone did that built the bigger picture.

Do it too often rather than too little. A recurrent finding in surveys is that leaders think they say thank you often, but their teams think it’s a rarity.

Support and recognition

There is good evidence that being attentive to each other’s needs more broadly and acknowledging accomplishments help create great teams and great leaders. Expressing genuine interest in people and understanding the effort that goes into their work builds social capital in a team and a great sense of cohesion. This is empowering in good times, and necessary for resilience when times get tough.

Developing people

Training, encouraging people to take on more responsibility, even sending people on secondments pays dividends. It shows people that you are interested in their well-being. Putting effort into working with people on an individual basis – working out what development is best for them in their individual circumstances – is a characteristic of a successful leader. People appreciate being treated as individuals as well as team members.

An added benefit of developing people is that it increases the team’s skills and encourages people to think in new ways and innovate. People will bring new perspectives and help the team to think in new ways.

The best leaders dare to hire people who are even better than they are, and help them develop their careers - even if it means they're more likely to leave the team further down the line.

You are building skills and building commitment.

Cynics sour cultures

Now for the hardest, but probably the most important part if you’re trying to turn a team around.

Cynics sour cultures. Sometimes they don’t know they’re doing it. Sometimes “Here we go again (sigh) – didn’t work last time, won’t work this time” gets a cheap laugh. But it drains enthusiasm, short-term and long-term.

Sometimes people feel genuinely discouraged and can see all the reasons something might not work. They are shooting themselves in the foot before they start by getting stuck in their “disempowering beliefs”.

Talking differently

Changing these beliefs, and helping people become more resilient and upbeat, requires courage. The development session "Creating an optimistic culture" takes you through the process step-by-step.

It involves taking people’s concerns seriously, listening carefully and discussing them openly and constructively. In the team or one-to-one, the principle is the same.

“You say it didn’t work last time. Which time are you talking about? What went wrong?”

Sometimes people will say it was just a joke, in which case you have to find a decent way of saying that jokes like that aren’t very helpful if you want to make it work this time around.

Sometimes they will have a particular event in mind, in which case review it properly – discuss exactly what went wrong and how you can make it different this time. Shift the conversation to what can be done, and how.

The principle of overcoming cynicism or discouragement is always the same. Ask people openly why they feel discouraged. Then:

  1. In a rational way, discuss how accurate and relevant their concerns are for this new situation. Often people's fears are out of proportion and discussing them reduces their hold.
  2. Then move the conversation to what can realistically be done, and how to maximise the chances of success.

This doesn’t have to be humourless. Much better if you can keep it light-hearted. But you are trying to shift the talk of “no and can’t” to “yes and can”.

How we talk about the world makes a big difference to how we feel about it. And that makes a big difference to our chances of success.

Using Appreciative Inquiry

Another very helpful way to keep the team on a positive note is to use the Appreciative Inquiry approach - especially when you are discussing potential changes. Click here to find out more about the approach - which builds on team and individual strengths to build a positive direction for the future.

1. See for example Ng 2017 Transformational leadership and performance outcomes The Leadership Quarterly 28 pp 385 - 417


Exercise - Saying 'thank you'

Time: Very little time, but heightened awareness

This exercise asks you to see if you notice a difference in morale and effort when you make a conscious effort to thank people for their efforts and achievements.

Exercise - Addressing cynicism

Time: 20 minutes

This exercise is based on listening to someone's concerns, taking them seriously and discussing them constructively, and coming to a new understanding together.

Exercise - Appreciative inquiry

Time: 20 minutes

The 'appreciative inquiry' approach to organisational change seeks to build on what works well rather than get stuck in the mess of what is going wrong in a situation. These two similar exercises help you to build any change or development on your experience of when things have gone well.

Exercise - Creating an Empowered and Optimistic Culture

Time: 1 hour

The aim of this exercise is to look at how you / your team talk about events - past, present or future - and see how you could view them in a more optimistic and empowering way.