Blue Beyond Consulting

Your Management Edge? Empowered Employees

I was recently reflecting on a trip my teenage son and I took last year to visit my brother in London; recalling the beautiful view of the city from the top of the London Eye, the look in his eyes as we stared up (and up!) at Big Ben, doing our best “Death Eater” impressions while walking across the Millennium Bridge (a la Harry Potter) and giggling in fits as we walked the Thames River to see which one of us could get closest to the MI6 building without being thrown out of the country (James Bond, anyone?).

I caught myself laughing out loud as I remembered a conversation I had with our waitress at a tiny pub not far from spy headquarters:

“I’ll have an ice tea, please,” I said.
“We don’t serve ice tea when it’s this cold outside,” she replied.
“Do you have hot tea?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Do you have ice?”
Again, “yes.”
“Do you think you could put the two of them together?” I sweetly suggested.
“I’ll have to ask my manager,” she replied.

Being in “vacation mode” and not thinking too deeply about the exchange, I eventually got my “ice tea” and my son and I got a good laugh. But that exchange, as simple as it was, illustrates the command-and-control dinosaur that still pervades many organizations today.

Throughout my career as a leader, one of my biggest passions has been empowering my teams to make reasonable, on the spot decisions without me (something us parents struggle with as well). Many managers, directors and executives I’ve talked with over the years share a similar challenge. We have one of two choices: Issue rules to be followed in every possible situation; or leave employees free to react autonomously and make “at the edge” decisions every day – a practice employed at some of the most innovative and successful companies out there (including ours!).

Not surprisingly, empowerment comes through engagement, which is one of the key factors to success as a people manager. A recent survey by HR services firm Randstad found that more than eight of 10 employees believe that their relationship with their direct supervisor has a big impact on how happy they are with their job.

According to Gallup, 54% of employees are not engaged in their work, with another 18% reporting that they are actively disengaged. Gallup concludes this workplace disengagement is largely a result of bosses either completely ignoring workers or focusing too much on employees’ weaknesses.

And if that’s not enough to make your head spin, the same Gallup poll of more than 1 million employed U.S. workers concludes that the No. 1 reason people quit their jobs is a bad boss or immediate supervisor. “People leave managers not companies…in the end, turnover is mostly a manager issue,” Gallup writes in its survey findings.


Managing a team is no easy task, as it requires balancing your own job as well as the expectations for your direct reports. There are many factors that impact the manager/employee relationship; even seemingly simple issues can turn into big ones if left unattended (think the independent individual contributor whose manager hovers, or the team member who prefers step-by-step direction whose manager steps back).

While there isn’t a one-approach-solves-every-issues solution, there are simple things people managers can do to engage and ultimately empower others. I personally like asking three simple questions because their answers knit communications and follow-through together in ways that demonstrate as a manager or supervisor, you are interested enough to listen, concerned enough to act and willing enough to offer assistance.

  1. What’s happening? Sit down one on one with individual team members or in small groups. Have a conversation about what they are doing and how things are going. Do they have what they need to do their jobs? Do they need more time? More manpower? Simply asking the question invites discussion.
  2. What are you hearing? Taking time to listen to what your team members have to say is critical. A good supervisor or manager wants his or her team to share what other people are saying so that they can keep a pulse on the culture.
  3. What can I do to help? A manager’s job is to support the output and the outcome. A manager must always be in position to help the team achieve its objectives. When you ask how you can help, you invite discussion and demonstrate that you understand your responsibility to help others. No question can be more fundamental to creating engagement with your team.

Once you make asking these question a habit, you’ll find they will build trust, promote teamwork and help those on your teams do better work because the answers will allow you to identify and remove obstacles so that your team is empowered. It may also make you more effective because it sheds light about what’s on people’s minds so that you can better engage and support them.

Finally, keep a pulse on your team member’s professional judgment, regardless of their title, level or function. Show you value and respect their decisions when they make good ones, and take time to coach and correct the not-so-good ones. No matter how old or experienced we may be, research suggests that having a learning mentality and being open to feedback helps keep us young.

In a corner of my mind, I re-write the conversation with our London pub waitress. Rather than “I’ll have to ask my manager,” she smiles at my sweet nudging and says, “Yes! I can do that for you.” When her manager sees her pouring hot tea over a cup of ice he looks proudly over to her and says, “Brilliant! Well done!” and – beaming in the glow what it’s like to feel empowered – she sets my tea down at the table.