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Making People Feel Empowered with Intent-based Leadership

| by Ben Linders Follow 29 Followers on Nov 18, 2015. Estimated reading time: 4 minutes |

Intent-based leadership is about giving control and decision-making power to people who have the information. When we give control to people who have the competence and clarity, we create an environment where great things happen, says Jenni Jepsen.

The Agile Consortium is hosting an evening seminar on leadership fit for the 21st century. David Marquet, author of the book "Turn the Ship Around!" will give a keynote on intent-based leadership and Jenni Jepsen will give a talk titled "Empowering people is impossible". InfoQ will cover this event.

InfoQ interviewed Jepsen about intent-based leadership and its strengths and weaknesses, giving influence and control to people to spread decision making, and how to create an environment where people can feel empowered.

InfoQ: Can you briefly describe how intent-based leadership works?

Jepsen: Intent-based leadership, coined by L. David Marquet, is about creating an environment where people give intent to each other, where people feel valued and proud of the work they do, where they understand how they fit in the whole of the organization and its goals, where they feel inspired, motivated and take responsibility. Intent-based leadership is about giving control and decision-making power to people who have the information. The two enabling pillars are competence and clarity. If people have the competencies needed and the understanding of the goals, they should then also have the decision making power. When we give control to people who have the competence and clarity, we create an environment where great things happen.

InfoQ: What in your opinion are the strengths of intent-based leadership? Are there also weaknesses?

Jepsen: The strengths are that this way of leading – and here it’s about creating leaders at every level – plays into how we are wired. Increasing competence, clarity and having the power to make decisions feeds into our intrinsic motivation. Hmmm, weaknesses … people underestimate what it takes to provide clarity. We need to understand why we are doing things, how it fits into overall strategic goals. What we’ve seen is that many times top management are not involving and engaging others in the organization in the goal setting and understanding the purpose. Even if people have the competence to make decisions, without the clarity, we all have a tough time making smart decisions.

InfoQ: Do you have examples how people can share what they intend to do without making it look like they are asking for permission?

Jepsen: Sure. What we really do when we say "I intend to …," is to inform others of what we are about to do. This serves two purposes, one: someone with more information can jump in and contribute, and two: we are increasing the communication around our actions. We are not asking permission, only informing. For example, one of the Scrum Masters I am working with recently told his leader: "I intend to run a workshop with the business stakeholders to get more understanding of the release plan." Normally, this is something his leader would be involved in. By letting the leader know, the Scrum Master took the decision and the responsibility – and still gave his leader an opportunity to comment or get involved if he chose to. The leader did not participate, but he still felt in control simply because he was informed. This back-and-forth also builds trust.

InfoQ: Can you explain why people tend to be open and creative when they have a feeling of influence and control?

Jepsen: Having a feeling of influence and control feed into what intrinsically motivates us. When we feel motivated, we are experiencing a release of dopamine (a neurotransmitter signaling reward) in the brain. It is this "rush of reward" that opens up the brain – there is more oxygen flowing in the pre-frontal cortex, the rational thinking part of the brain. It is this region that is responsible for focused thinking, where goal-oriented behavior and innovation happens. The reason we tend to be open and creative when we have a feeling of influence and control is based on pure science. And there’s more about this in the InfoQ article I wrote on the Neuroscience of Agile Leadership.

Do you have an example of an obstacle that can get into the way when an organization wants to spread decision making and give control to employees?

Jepsen: I am working with a group of leaders right now whose ambition is to do exactly this and they are doing it in a traditionally command-and-control environment. The biggest obstacle they are facing are people’s old habits. People are used to being told what to do and many are really afraid of taking control. This is natural. We are also wired to resist change. Change signals danger in our brains. So, as leaders, we must help people feel safe, and understand that change happens in small steps. And we need to get positive feedback around new habits in order to make things stick.

Do you have suggestions on how to create an environment where people can feel empowered?

Jepsen: Of course! First, we need to increase competence and clarity, if that is not already in place. Then, we need to look at things in the physical environment, such as signs and policy documents that tell people what to do. Things like signs that threaten people if they do not wash their coffee cups, or policies that spell out how many hours we must be at the office. If we say we trust people enough for them to have control, then we also have to examine and get rid of the other messages in the physical environment that are contradictory and that, in reality, tell people what to do. Feeling empowered is about having a clear understanding of the big picture, the ability to do the right thing, make the right decisions, and take responsibility without fear. It’s really all about trust.

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