There is much more to empowering your team than simply stating "You're empowered." Consider the three Ws of empowerment: "what," "when," and "why" when creating boundaries that define which decisions are the team's and which need management approval.
"I want you to be empowered," Bob told his team at the team meeting. But several weeks later, Bob expressed his disappointment to his colleague Sue. "My team members have a victim mentality," he said. "They're too passive. They wait for the team lead to tell them what to do. And the team lead checks everything with me. I want these people to show some initiative!"
Sue cocked her head. "What have you seen that makes you say that?"
"You remember the middleware bug we had last month?"
"Well, the team came up with a solution that was all wrong," Bob said. "It's a good thing I caught it before they forged ahead. If I hadn't wandered into the team room and seen the diagrams on the whiteboard, I never would have known about it."
Sue raised an eyebrow.
"I called the team into a huddle and explained why that idea wouldn't work. Then I had a meeting with the team lead. I really dressed him down. He should be leading them--not letting them make stupid mistakes."
Sue's other eyebrow went up.
"I want the team to dig in and solve problems," Bob said. "So last week at the team meeting, I asked everyone to offer at least one idea about how we can meet the deadline for our next release without dropping any features.
"One of the team members actually said it was impossible. Another one suggested we could implement a partial solution that included some manual work in the customer care department. When I told her that she hadn't examined all the issues with her approach, she backed down! How can we come up with creative solutions if we can't argue our ideas?
"Now they just sit there. It's like they are afraid to make any decisions at all."
Sue held up her hand to stop him.
"Bob," Sue said, as gently as she could, "do you think you might be sending mixed messages?"
Bob looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"I wonder how your team members felt when you overrode their technical design."
"I saved them from a big mistake," Bob said. "I'd think they'd be grateful."
Sue shrugged. "Maybe. And I bet they also felt like you told them the decision was theirs to make, and when they didn't do what you wanted, you took the decision back."
"But what they were planning was wrong!" Bob exclaimed.
Sue nodded. "No, it wouldn't have been very efficient. But it might have been more effective in helping team members learn how to think through the issues together. They are new to this and still need to learn through experience.
"Do you remember when you were learning how to drive?" Sue asked.
"Sure. My dad took me to a big, open parking lot and gave me instructions: Ease up on the clutch, press the gas pedal gently. After I mastered the clutch, he took me out on a quiet road."
"And after you received your license, did he let you drive anywhere, anytime, with no restrictions?" Sue asked.
"Of course not. At first I was allowed to drive to school alone, and later I was allowed to drive after dark. It was months before my dad let me drive with my friends in the car. At the time I hated it, but looking back, he was helping me build my driving skills before he turned me loose."
"Exactly," Sue said. "And that's what you didn't do with your team. In essence you told your team members they could drive anywhere. Then, at the first small mistake, you