by Phil Manington

The empowering manager

How your people behave will depend on how you behave as their manager. Together, you will gradually negotiate what they expect of you and what you expect of them. Some of this negotiation will be explicit (for example, job descriptions and appraisals) but most will be implicit, based on daily behaviour. To maintain their trust and commitment, you must ensure that management behaviour is in line with the principles set out in What an empowered culture looks like and that it starts from the top.

This is relatively straight-forward if you are in charge of a small team with everyone reporting directly to you. It will be your behaviour that counts and no-one else’s.


If you have other managers involved, whether above or below you, it is vital that you all share the same vision and are committed to it. It is particularly important that this commitment is maintained at all times. It is very easy to lose people’s trust if enlightened management behaviour only lasts while things are going well and old patterns emerge when things get tough.

For example, suppose you normally involve people in discussing departmental targets and budgets and agreeing staffing levels and deployment, but then budgets are cut and you have to make redundancies. You decide to sort this out yourself and tell your people what you have decided. They will soon feel that you only consult them when it suits you. They will feel let down; they will not trust you, and they will be reluctant to contribute in the future. You will see empowerment visibly draining away.

It will be far more effective to continue to involve them. Doing so in such difficult times will not be easy but it will build their trust in you and increase their sense of empowerment – and they will rise to the occasion and help you with even the most painful decisions.

The qualities that people look for most in leaders are not infallibility or infinite knowledge but confidence in themselves and in their group’s collective ability to find a solution.

Jerry Colonna: Venture Capitalist

The ultimate leader is one who is willing to develop people to the point that they eventually surpass him or her in knowledge and ability.

Fred A Manske, Jr

Personal behaviour

Managers, particularly junior and middle managers, are often protective of their status and security. The typical worry runs ‘If I empower my people, it might make me dispensable.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Empowering your team will bring you significant personal benefits. It will create a high performing team and that will make you an extremely successful manager. See Benefits for the manager for more details.

There are two key behaviours that you personally need to engage in consistently if you wish to develop an empowering culture and to get these benefits for yourself: encouragement and delegation. For details on how to delegate successfully, see Delegation. We shall focus on encouragement here.

To encourage your people to take responsibility and authority, rather than trying to protect your own position, you need to

  • Help people to believe in themselves
  • Delegate real power (responsibility and authority)
  • Ensure that your people get appropriate coaching and development
  • Encourage your people to embrace change positively
  • Know what skills and abilities your people have and build on them
  • Focus on solutions rather than apportioning blame
  • Give constructive criticism where necessary.

Men often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. But when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn’t have it in the beginning.

Mahatma Gandhi

A common trait among UK managers is that they only speak to someone about their performance when they feel it could be improved, believing that this is the best way to encourage the person to do better. In fact, the most effective way to encourage people is to praise them when they do well.

Case study

Gregory Bateson, the renowned anthropologist, studied how dolphins are trained and noted that they need to be alerted to any piece of behaviour they are doing right, which is achieved by the blowing of a whistle, and to have this behaviour rewarded by being given a fish.

The trainer builds on the natural behaviour of the dolphin. So when it spins around in the water out of pleasure, the trainer will blow the whistle and give it a fish. Every time this behaviour is repeated, the dolphin hears the whistle and is given the fish.

It is also interesting to note that the trainer never gives negative feedback. If the dolphin does not do what the trainer wants, he does not give it rotten fish or shout at the dolphin – he simply waits patiently until he gets the behaviour he wants.

Sometimes, however, the dolphin is given a fish just for being a dolphin! You might imagine that this would confuse the dolphin, but this is not the case. In fact, this form of recognition seems to be essential and is particularly important when the dolphin is learning something difficult.

Trainers believe that the giving of fish acts as encouragement to keep trying and help develop the relationship between the trainer and the dolphin. Without the occasional unsolicited bonus, the dolphin gets frustrated and gives up, refusing to take any further part in the training.

Key tip

Learn from dolphins about the power of positive feedback and use it to build on what people do naturally – using their innate skills to do what you want them to do.

Studies have found that managers often spend three times as much time telling people what they did wrong as telling them what they did right. Ken Blanchard, in The One Minute Manager, describes the drawbacks of concentrating on catching people doing things wrong and suggests that a far more productive approach is to ‘catch them doing it right’.

Key tip

Catch someone doing something right every day.

See how often you can catch somebody doing something right. And, even when dealing with poor performance, can you leave people feeling good about themselves? (You might use the feedback sandwich: positive feedback first; then opportunities for improvement or development, and then finish with a positive statement.)


Your day-to-day behaviour forms the basis for changing how others behave, but you can build on this with a number of initiatives, suggested below, each of which will contribute to creating an empowerment culture.

  • Action Learning is a method of active problem-solving in small groups. It aims to bring about change, both for the individual and the organisation. It is used in business as a way to develop managers, leaders and professionals who want to increase their skills and self-awareness and advance their careers.
  • 360° Assessment offers a way for all employees to discover how well they are performing. People seek feedback from their colleagues, manager, direct reports and customers. This is usually done in the form of a questionnaire that asks for an assessment of specific skills, behaviours and attitudes. These are usually rated on a scale and the recipient can then use this information to identify areas for improvement and development.
  • Team Building – a team comprises any group of people linked in a common purpose, and team building activities focus on improving individual and collective performance in support of this common purpose. Many of the actions described in this section will contribute to building a stronger team and these can be complemented by events that help to build relationships, clarify team goals, build ownership across the team and address issues that might obstruct the team in achieving its goals.
  • Quality circles started in Japan after World War II as part of the wider quality movement, which was aimed at revitalising Japanese industry. A quality circle is a small group of people from the same work area who meet to identify and resolve work-related problems. The intention is to improve the performance of the organisation through the creativity of its employees while at the same time motivating and developing them.

Treat people as adults

Most managers believe that they treat people as adults. However, in practice, they are often not prepared to trust them to behave like responsible adults and treat them more like children. For example, the CEO of a multi-billion pound organisation insisted on personally signing every order for contractors worth more than £10,000 – and there were hundreds of them. Not surprisingly, his directors felt anything but empowered. In fact, they behaved as he treated them – more like children, finding ways of sneaking things through when his back was turned.

For more information about this aspect of empowerment, see Coaching and Delegation.