On direction 'versus' empowerment

This post originally appeared in my newsletter. Subscribe to receive it!

I first learned the phrase “balance direction and empowerment” from Dana Trader, Meetup’s former VP of HR (now she’s a VP at Teachers Pay Teachers).

She said, “The idea here is that direction and total empowerment are on a spectrum, and good managers move along this spectrum to meet their team’s needs.

This idea has stuck with me ever since.

To me, it boils down to the importance of setting expectations. All kinds of organizational expectations (quarterly goals, job descriptions, team mission statements, etc.) will evolve based on company context, scale over time, leadership changes, you name it.

As our environments change, managers need to flex HOW they set expectations along that spectrum of empowerment and direction. They need to adapt based on what their team needs, what the challenge is, how much urgency there is, what the company needs… the list goes on.

Starting this past fall, I’ve incorporated a new exercise into my full-day Demystifying Management workshop that builds on this idea, to help managers figure out when they need to switch up their approach. I start with the spectrum on a slide, like this:

Solid line with Empowerment on one end, and Direction on the other

In this newsletter, I’m eager to coach you through thinking about where you start by default on this spectrum, and then how you might move along this spectrum, given your team’s context, the needs of your individual teammates, and what the company needs, too. :)

—Lara

Star symbol placed near the Empowerment end of a solid line, while Direction is on the other end of the line

We all have a default.

For example, on the empowerment end of the spectrum, we might see managers:

And on the direction end of the spectrum, we might see managers:

For me? I’m all the way over on the empowerment end of the spectrum by default. Coaching is my JAM. I also prioritize sponsoring folks for stretch opportunities as much as I can, because it’s proven out to be the most effective skill leaders can employ to help folks level up.

This is useful in a few specific cases, like: when someone’s ready to stretch and grow. When someone wants to connect the dots themselves, rather than be taught exactly how someone else would do it. When there’s not an enormous amount of urgency.

Coaching q’s to help you find your default:

You can imagine that there are times when my default won’t cut it. It won’t be what the individual needs, or what the team needs, or what the company needs. This is why what Dana says is incredibly important: that as leaders, we need to be able to move along this spectrum.

Coaching q’s to think about when the rest of the spectrum might be more helpful:

So… how do we learn how to flex?

Moving along the spectrum

I firmly believe it’s our responsibility to get comfortable with each end of this spectrum, and spots in between, too. It’s our responsibility to know when to use different approaches, and how to empower others or give direction effectively.

The best way I’ve learned how to do this is through practice—practicing different body language, tone, word choices, senses of urgency, coaching questions, you name it. See what this does for you, what impact is has on others, and gather some data on where each skill or approach might be the most effective.

But it’s super risky to experiment with your teammates! So how can you get this practice with different places along the empowerment/direction spectrum, while minimizing risk?

By practicing with your colleagues, aka roleplays!

I’ve already written about this in a previous newsletter, but in case this is fresh info for you: here are some example scenarios that you can use for practice.

Get into groups of 3-4 folks. One person acts the part of the “manager”, another is the “individual contributor”, and anyone else who’s around observes to take notes and give feedback.

When it’s your turn to play the part of the “manager”—choose where on the empowerment/direction spectrum you want to practice. Maybe you want to practice giving really strong direction. Or maybe you want to practice giving no advice, but instead offer only open coaching questions. The choice is yours!

Afterwards, debrief:

Over time, you’ll begin to figure out when your default approach won’t do the trick, and how to safely employ other leadership approaches on the spectrum. It’s not comfortable, but it is critical; your team’s success and growth will depend on it.

Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.