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Leadership Fit for the 21st Century: Empowering People is Impossible

by Ben Linders on Feb 18, 2016 |

This second post in the series on leadership fit for the 21st century covers the talk given by Jenni Jepsen from goAgile at the evening seminar on leadership fit for the 21st century about why empowering people is impossible.

Jepsen started by questioning the audience whether you should wait for somebody to empower you, of if somebody can empower someone else. We cannot empower people, but we can work to create an organization where people feel empowered, said Jepsen.

For giving control to people, you have to assure that they have technical competence and that the organization in which they are working provides clarity. The thing is, leaders need to give some control to find out where the gaps are. Earlier InfoQ did a Q&A with her about making people feel empowered with intent-based leadership in which she explained how this works:

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.

Jepsen mentioned things that can get in the way of giving control by agile leaders:

  • Busy-ness
  • Contradictory messages in the environment, which prevent people from taking responsibility
  • Policies and procedures people feel that they "have to" follow
  • Stress, which forces people to think more black and white
  • Old habits; people are wired to stay in habit mode which takes less energy

In the InfoQ article the neuroscience of agile leadership Jepsen explained how people are wired to maximize reward and minimize danger.

Creating new habits starts with deciding to do something differently. Jepsen suggested to choose only one thing to do, and pay attention to doing it. It is one of the principles of Intent-based Leadership: "act your way to new thinking". To make the new habit stick, you need to feel good about the results of the change, get positive feedback and feel rewarded, and keep doing it over and over again.

It is up to Agile leaders to create an environment where people feel empowered, said Jepsen. She suggested to look for physical evidence that people feel empowered: what language do people use, for example, are they asking for permission or telling you what they intend to do? Are people smiling and talking together? Are backlogs visible to everyone? Do people take responsibility without waiting for someone else to do something?

Jepsen presented a nudge, a kind of mini experiment that she did with the audience to "act your way to new thinking". She asked the attendees to come up with one thing that they would like to improve about themselves, and then to discuss in groups of two why they would want to work on this. Next, she asked the people in the groups to brainstorm about specific things, actions that each person could do, and take those ideas back home and start doing them. Breaking down new behaviours into very small, specific actions is the way to make change successful.

And, for many organizations, creating an environment where people feel empowered is a big change. The things that get in the way of making this happen are common. Understanding that and making small changes to support people feeling empowered, as well as looking for the evidence that it is working are key.

The first post in this series on leadership fit for the 21st century titled Challenges in an Agile Environment covers the talk given by Hendrik Pothof and Michael Bres about leadership challenges in an agile environment.

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