Vestalia’s Empowerment 101 – How the Heck Does it Happen?

All this talk over the past month about empowerment – what we believe it does for our organization and the people in it, how we embrace it or push it away – and not a peep about how it might be done.  There are probably hundreds of ways to go about empowerment, we pulled one possibility out of our own experiences and understanding of it and envisioned it as maps for the empowerer and empoweree.  There are four stops along the way, each one serves to strengthen the relationship between the empowerment participants by increasing knowledge, capability, trust, and accountability, so that the ultimate transfer of power is a smooth one.

After reading this, please tell me what you think!  I’m curious to know if you experience the empowerment process differently, and if so, how.

Thank you for your time with us on Empowerment month!  -Becky


Vestalia’s Empowerment 101 – How the Heck Does it Happen?

By Becky Lemon, 5/1/19

A few years ago at some retreats Vestalia hosted with our restaurant leaders, we were all talking about empowerment – where did the leaders feel it, where did they need it, etc.  It was interesting to compile the lists and get understanding about where the decision-making lived, but still, the burning question that kept coming up was: How do we go about giving or getting it?  I’m not sure there is one answer. Empowering people is an ongoing practice, we learn something new every time it goes well and every time it doesn’t. As an organization, it is important that we all speak the same language around such an essential part of our culture and share an understanding of how power gets transferred from one entity to another.  Enter the four stages on the map to empowerment.


First Things First: How Do We Define Empowerment?

Empowerment at Vestalia is akin to ownership.  You are empowered if it is widely understood by you and those surrounding you that, in the specific project or task, you possess the awareness and responsibility to act and make decisions.  

Awareness = you understand the scope and purpose of the project or task; you have the necessary knowledge, skills, tools, and resources to be proficient in your role

Responsibility = You understand the expectations of the project or task and hold yourself accountable to meeting them; you assess and drive any activity around your project or task; you are not waiting to be instructed nor are you awaiting approval or permission from a party with more power to move on plans.

While it often happens that people empower themselves if they see something that needs to get done that no one else is doing (from picking trash up off the floor to spearheading a revamp of outdated side-work checklists), we’re focusing on situations where there is a transfer of power.  Someone owns a project or task, and they want to give that decision-making and acting ability to someone else.


How Do We Go About Giving or Getting Empowerment?

This feels like such a mystery, and yet we do it all the time when we train a new hire. If you’re following a decent program, getting to empowerment looks like this:

  1. A trainer teaches the new hire everything they need to know to do their job (here’s how you set up your mise-en-place, these are the table numbers, follow this recipe or these steps of service, etc.).  They get aligned on job expectations and what it looks like when they’re satisfied.
  2. After that, the new hire shadows (follows) someone who knows what they’re doing.  That trainer is sometimes directing the new hire on what to do and why, and is sometimes supporting them by offering feedback after letting the new hire try stuff and fail or succeed on their own.
  3. Once their knowledge and capability in their role increases, the new hire gets shadowed by a trainer who is there for support but offering little to no direction. Essentially the new hire is simply doing their job, this is where they work out any final kinks and prove to the trainer and themselves that they’re ready to be on their own.
  4. After that, when both parties agree that the new hire is reasonably proficient at their job and can be successful with little to no direction or support from the trainer, they decide to end the training period. The new hire is officially free to work their shift like everyone else.

Yes feedback and learning will continue, but at that final stage, the new hire is empowered to act and make decisions about how they will complete the tasks and responsibilities of their role.  


Sound familiar?  Here’s what’s going on in each stop along the way to empowerment.

Learning: The leader is showing the lay of the land, the learner is getting the lay of the land

The goal is for the leader to share with the learner the knowledge and tools that they’ll need to succeed in their role, and for both parties to gain alignment on expectations and how they’ll both know that the learner is satisfying them.  


Practicing: The leader is acting as a safety net, the learner is working with a safety net

This step is crucial in building trust.  The leader needs to be in it with the learner and observe how they are putting their knowledge to use and what their instincts are when they make a mistake.  Their trust grows when they believe the learner is “getting it.” The learner needs to test their knowledge – their confidence is reinforced when they try and succeed, they learn valuable lessons when they try and fail.  They’re building trust in themselves. In this stage both can clarify anything from the learning stage if questions come up in the field. Both feel safe because there is an expectation that the leader will step in to direct if the learner is lost or headed in a direction that could cause real harm.   


Doing: The leader is encouraging risks, the learner is taking risks

This is where the leader moves aside to give room for the learner to gain independence.  They turn down, way down, their instinct to tell the learner what they should do or should have done, and keep their role in support or problem-solving if the learner asks for it.  The learner takes control and shows themselves and the leader what they’ve got. They stretch out and explore the boundaries of the role, before this stage they might ask if a certain action was okay, here they’d just give it a shot and trust that they’ve got the goods to recover if it doesn’t go well.    


Empowered: The leader says “you got this,” the learner says “I got this”

Here the leader steps out of the way and the learner takes on ownership of the task or project.  They are now fully accountable for doing the job, and are free to make decisions, changes, or innovations in their own way and on their own timeline.  Unlike autonomy, where the leader would completely sever ties with the learner, there is still a thread that connects them. The leader can be called into decision-making and problem-solving if asked.  They can step in to challenge the learner if they believe self-accountability of the learner is missing (i.e., they either aren’t doing the job or performance is suffering in a way that is causing damage to the team).  They can check in and celebrate the work the learner is doing.


What’s Going On When Things Are Going Smoothly in the Empowerment Journey?  What’s Going On When They Aren’t?

A relationship is created when the leader and learner agree to transfer power, how well they navigate the road to empowerment together will determine how it feels to be in the process.  If both can fulfill their roles, set up a good feedback loop, and go through each stage in order and in sync, there is likely to be harmony. If one or both are not playing their roles, withholding feedback, or they move at different paces through each stage (or skip stages altogether), there will be conflict.  Here are some common empowerment misalignments:

The learner feels:

Held back – the learner feels like they should be Empowered or moving forward towards empowerment more quickly, but something is standing in their way.  While they could be missing some key element of knowledge or capability from Learning or Practicing, often blame is pointed at the leader that still ultimately holds the power.

Thrown into the fire – the leader skips the first three stages and the learner is empowered without context, training, or adequate support.  They feel overwhelmed, alone, and in the dark – the pressure to figure it out themselves feels terrible.

Micromanaged – the learner feels like they’re in Doing or Empowered and gets frustrated because the leader is in the Practice stage telling them what to do or constantly asking for reports or approvals on learner’s decisions.

Underutilized – the learner feels like too much time is being spent in Learning or Practicing, their abilities are being ignored or going unacknowledged


The leader is:

Putting on the brakes – the leader feels like the learner is skipping ahead or moving too quickly through the process; they have an intense need to slow them down and shore up Learning and/or Practicing

Pushing them out of the nest – the leader thinks the learner’s got this, yet the learner appears to be hesitating or seems unwilling to take the reigns

Being an overly cautious controller – the leader crams in too much Learning and spends too much time in Practice, often seeking to control the behavior of the learner so they’ll do things exactly like they would.  In this case, the leader could be well-intentioned (I want to spare you from making the mistakes I made!) or not (I’m super afraid of giving up power unless I can create a clone of myself).  Either way, the process slows down, the learner gets stifled, and they may not truly reach the Empowered stage.

If you’re feeling one of these, or there is some other hitch in your empowerment process, check in with one another.  Be honest about your observations and assessment of what stage you believe each of you is showing up in. This will uncover where the gap in alignment is, and you’ll both start to see where you can get back on the same page and start moving forward again in a satisfying and effective way.  


In Case You Like Visual Aids

There are actual empowerment relationship maps!  Amie Bresnahan, Vestalia’s Associate Director of People Development, and I created separate maps – one for the leader and one for the learner – that explain the roles and behaviors that each are actively engaged in during every stage.  We based it directly on the Situational Leadership Model created by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard (click here to learn more about it).  You can use the maps to guide you through the process, or help decide when to transition from one stage to another (that is often a blurry step).  You can also use them to have conversations about whether you’re matching up or misaligned in the stages. We’ve even used them in performance reviews!  Here they are:

Empowerment Relationship Map: Leader

Empowerment Relationship Map: Learner

Summing Up

The road to empowerment is challenging.  When leaders and learners can embrace the process to get there and give each other the necessary time to build trust between them, the results are extraordinary.  If this map and the sequences, roles, and behaviors it describes makes sense to you (i.e., you’ve got the lay of the land), apply it to empowerment endeavors you’re already in or ones you’re about to embark on.  If you’re struggling to see how it applies to your empowerment situations, talk with a mentor or colleague that can help you make sense of it all. Whether you follow this route or another one, the real keys are being intentional about how you’re going to go about transferring power, then sharing honest feedback with one another about the process and how you’re both moving through it.  Have fun on your journey!

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