Leadership Skills / Workforce Development / Industrial Training / Career Development

Leadership: How to cede control and not go crazy

Tom Moriarty explores what you need to successfully empower your team to make decisions and take action.

By Tom Moriarty, Alidade MER

Teams perform better when managers and supervisors empower them to make decisions and solve issues with the least amount of supervisory intervention.

Leaders who give their employees more control over their work and over decisions about how work should be done do so because they realize that the workforce is smarter than they are about the systems the team works on. Many enlightened organizations also find that, when empowered, the workforce can respond to situations more quickly.

That’s because the workforce knows that they have been trusted to handle the situation.

When issues get bigger, the empowerment may still be extended on an “act-then-report” basis. Acting first and reporting second retains the benefit of quick response. Reporting to the supervisor or manager what was done soon after the action was taken informs the boss of what happened but also provides the worker with “top cover” (support from their supervisor or manager). Of course, the larger the issue, the more thoughtful the empowerment should be. 

What’s required from the organization to allow for empowering teams? Several things must be present:

  • There must be commitment from senior managers. 
  • There must be mutual trust between management and labor.
  • The organization must maintain a commitment to training and education.
  • The organization must select appropriate activities to delegate.

When you empower team members, you give up some control. Your tolerance for how much control you give up has a lot to do with the people you’re considering empowering. The better the relationship between management and labor, the greater the likelihood that empowerment can work.

Senior managers must be committed to providing sufficient time and resources to prepare people to be empowered. In addition, they need to have the fortitude to allow decisions to be made that might not be the same ones they or the team leaders would make. Obviously, we want to avoid incidents that are unsafe or not in compliance with regulatory requirements and those that would significantly degrade operations or have high consequential costs.

Trust is critical. Managers and supervisors who are closest to the workforce will be the ones  empowering specific individuals or teams. Each person or team member has a responsibility to perform all of his or her tasks in a manner that increases trust in his or her knowledge, skills, and readiness to take on empowerment. When team members get more authority, they have the opportunity to learn new things, develop new skills, expand their network, and improve their job security and earning potential.

Team members must be trained in any technical skills and/or managerial aspects of the role they will be asked to take on. They may need access to budget information or production scheduling to tackle tasks successfully.

Empowering workers also means giving them the knowledge they need to take on the responsibility for decision-making. This is why I’m a big believer in workforce personnel participating in cross-functional training and in team activities focused on subjects such as defect elimination, reliability-centered maintenance (RCM); failure modes, effects and criticality analysis (FMECA); and root cause analysis (RCA). When team members have opportunities to collaborate, they learn much more about the entire system.

Always remember that not all tasks or activities are good candidates for this process of empowering workers. Good empowerment tasks are ones that can benefit from being performed by people who are closer to the work and who know more about how a given system operates.

My advice for managers and supervisors is to create an atmosphere that supports collaboration and trust. Lower-level team members and their managers and supervisors need to be comfortable with the transfer of authority, and employees need all relevant tools and skills to perform reliably. 

Once a team or team member has been empowered, the manager or supervisor has to retain accountability for the task. Think of it this way: The leader retains accountability, but the empowered person is responsible. The manager or supervisor must take the heat for things that don’t go well.