Authority: the first foundation of an empowered team

Empowered teams have authority. Without authority, there is no empowerment. Authority comes with many rewards for a team, but it's not without challenges.

I once managed a product team building features for a SaaS platform. A big part of the work was defining and slicing the engineering work. As the formal manager I, not the team, was granted authority for that work. I wanted to change that.

I had recently introduced a new informal role within the team. This role was responsible for breaking down the work for each project. For this project, an engineer stepped into that role. Over the next month, we worked together on expanding his and the team’s authority.

First, I showed him how I would break down the work. Working with sticky notes on a virtual whiteboard, I led and he followed.

Then, still pairing, he did more while we worked together. I gave advice and rapid feedback as we collaborated on the same screen.

Next, he went off and did the work himself. He shared the output later with me for confirmation.

Finally, he completed the work end to end. He let me know the outcome afterwards.

And what happened?

The project was a success. The engineer gained a better understanding of how his work fit. And we made a better product than if I owned the work myself.

Over the next six months, this team delivered 400% more customer-facing changes than in the previous six months. We became one of the most engaged teams in the company. And over half the team were promoted within a year.

I attribute much of this success to the team’s empowerment. And it starts with authority.

What authority looks like

Authority is a foundation for empowerment. It means:

Empowerment sits on a spectrum. So does authority. A team and its members can have more or less authority. In a low authority team, members might submit their work to their manager for approval. The manager has the authority to accept or reject any work product. In a high authority team, members decide what work needs to be done and how they’ll do it.

You may ask, authority from whom? Who grants this authority? In most cases, the team’s designated manager held the authority. By organisational decree, she held the power to make decisions for the team. She can empower her team by granting them authority. But remember, you can’t give authority without taking it away from someone. Managers often reject moves to grant teams more authority out of anxiety and fear.

How to grow a team’s authority

Here are some examples of how to increase the authority of a team:

As the story above suggests, authority can be granted gradually. As your team gains confidence and competence with the work, you can expand their decision-making scope. Eventually, they own each situation, end to end. You can start small.

The challenges of authority

If empowered teams are happier and more successful, why aren’t all teams granted more authority? There are (at least) three challenges:

Challenge 1: Performance may slip in the beginning

When granting authority to a team, expect performance to slip in the beginning.

In a study at a large financial company, one group was given greater authority in their work compared to a control group. After six months, this higher authority group outperformed their peers, showed increased job satisfaction, and subsequently had a much higher rate of promotion. But that’s not the full story.

For the first three months, the higher authority group underperformed the control group. Their job performance fell before it rose.

When a team and its members receive more responsibility, their jobs change. They’re now doing something more, or something different, to what they’ve always done. If you’ve trained them well, they’ll succeed in the transition. But it takes time. Don’t call off the whole effort just because the team is facing a learning curve.

Challenge 2: Managers may reject the change in status quo

Authority is a zero-sum game. You can’t give authority without taking it away from someone. Front-line managers often reject moves to grant teams more authority. Here are two reasons for this.

Managers reject change due to fear of loss of status and security. If my team now does what I used to do, what do I do now? Who am I without authority over others? This is an attack on their position, or so some managers think.

But the situation isn’t as dire as managers believe. In exchange for granting authority, you receive improved performance and higher engagement from your team. And you find yourself with free time to focus on the higher-level responsibilities of management — like strategy, planning, and training.

Managers reject change due to anxiety around reduced performance. As we saw above, increasing authority can lead to a temporary drop in performance. Not all managers can hold the course.

Culture is partly at play here. In cutthroat cultures where any drop in performance is scrutinised, who can blame a manager for not wanting to take a backward step?

Challenge 3: Authority needs accountability and ability

Authority is only one leg of the stool. A team is not empowered without accountability and ability.

Authority without accountability is a broken circle. Without accountability, the team won’t be motivated to improve outcomes. If authority means ownership of actions, accountability means ownership of results. Your team must own both to complete the circle: take action, assess the outcomes, and then modify those actions to improve results.

Without ability, the team won’t be able to complete the work. Many managers dump their teams with unlimited authority and wash their hands of the matter. This isn’t empowerment. It’s setting your team up for failure. You can see why many “team empowerment” initiatives fail.

A manager must provide her team with the knowledge and skills to succeed. She must foster a positive mindset within her team. And she must provide a safe environment for the team to perform.

Without authority, there is no empowerment. To grow a high-performing, empowered team, start by granting the power to make decisions.

© Braden Moore.RSS