How to empower your team through autonomy, mastery and purpose

@samueljabiodun · November 22, 2023

A few months ago, I spoke at the WeAreDevelopers World Congress on building high-performing software teams. The feedback from that talk has been overwhelming, and I’m thrilled it resonated with many people. In this post, I will unpack one of the key points I discussed: empowering your team and getting out of the way.

I like to think of empowerment as involving a team in decision-making, giving them a participatory role that leverages their skills and judgment and enhances their sense of individual worth and commitment to the team’s goals.

When you begin leading a team, you might have the illusion that your role in the team is what keeps the lights on. You may even think that your decisions and skills alone are the primary factors responsible for getting the team to where it is. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one can lead a team or an organisation to success without the collective excellence of many.

The most effective teams I have seen are autonomous. Every team member works, contributes, and is equally committed to the team’s goals. The higher you advance in an organisation, the more you have to rely on diverse skills and talents in the people you’re leading to make your team thrive.

It’s no coincidence that the primary responsibilities of leaders include coaching, mentoring, and empowering those they lead, giving them the opportunity to take on significant initiatives, make mistakes, and continue to develop and grow along the way.

One of the fundamental changes you can make as a manager is reinforcing the belief that leadership is not just a function of the title someone holds on the team but that everyone can be a leader.

Empowering individuals on the team to lead and influence is crucial. If individuals on your team don’t believe they have the power to lead as you do, hierarchy sets in, as stated by Michael Loop in his book, “The Art of Leadership.” This situation can lead people to feel they need to seek permission to drive change or wait for someone to dictate what to do.

For new managers, there are subtle ways you can disempower your team. I fell into one a few years ago when I began leading a team of engineers. I would jump into facilitating inter-team communications, chase down team dependencies, and shield my team from non-technical work.

As my team’s scope increased, it became increasingly challenging to handle all of these tasks alone.

I decided it was time for me to start involving my team by showing them how I handle these tasks. I thought I would demonstrate how it’s done so they could learn from it. Implicitly, I also expected them to contribute in the areas where I involved them.

I tried hard to lead by setting good examples. However, the more I tried to show them, the less I saw the team replicating what I was doing. In the meetings I involved them, they acted as observers rather than participants. I wanted them to be active contributors, but instead, they took a back seat and simply tagged along.

I realised that I had not only communicated my intent and expectations but had also not provided enough space for them to take on responsibilities and lead. Consequently, the more I took the lead, the more the team felt crowded out. They believed it was easier and faster for me to handle those tasks than for them. They felt like they had nothing to add, which increased their disempowerment.

The example from my experience illustrates subtle ways in which a team or reports can become disempowered. Instead, a leader’s goal should be to work themselves out of their job.

The goal of all leaders should be to work themselves out of a job – Jocko Willink.

Empowering engineers takes different forms in engineering organisations. Sometimes, it could mean providing autonomy, sharing the big picture, and giving your team all the details they need to make the right decisions.

At other times, it could mean refraining from providing your team with solutions and dictating what to build. Instead, give them the problems you want to solve and provide the space for them to find solutions.

In other instances, it could mean empowering engineers to solve problems rather than just completing tasks, and giving them ownership over it end-to-end.

Empower your team through autonomy, purpose and mastery

I often observe striking similarities between motivation and empowerment. When a team lacks the drive or motivation to take ownership of a piece of work for which they are responsible from start to finish, most of the time, it is a sign that the team has not been empowered.

Show me an intrinsically motivated team brimming with passion to tackle problems, and I will show you an empowered team.

Intrinsic motivation is behaviour driven by an internal desire to do something. It’s the motivation to engage that arises from within the individual rather than from the externals.

One of the ways to evoke intrinsic motivation is to provide autonomy. In the book “Drive,” intrinsic motivation is based on three factors: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Tapping into the intrinsic motivation of individuals on your team leads to more sustainable performance and teamwork and consequently empowerment.

Give your team the right amount of autonomy

Autonomy is one’s ability to control one’s work or make decisions regarding one’s work. Empower your team by providing them with the freedom to choose how they approach their tasks, granting them a sense of ownership and accountability for the outcomes you want them to achieve.

You impede autonomy when you hand down feature requirements to your team without providing the context they need to comprehend the business problem and why they are doing what they’re doing.

A disempowered engineering team lacks the decision-making power regarding “what” they are building and “how” they are building it. The path to building an empowered team is to ensure that everyone has a say in what they are constructing and that they have the appropriate context that enables them to make effective micro-decisions.

Give them space to struggle through stretch projects

We’ve all experienced the joy of learning something new: the excitement that follows learning a new language or the satisfaction of finally mastering how to solve a persistent problem. That feeling of continuous improvement on something that felt nearly impossible a month ago is a crucial source of motivation that can keep you going.

Empower individuals on your team by providing them with opportunities to work on tasks that stretch their abilities—tasks that take them slightly out of their comfort zone but offer growth prospects.

Is there a team member who hasn’t yet had the chance to develop their skills in handling cross-functional projects? Create an opportunity that exposes that engineer to cross-functional projects where they can acquire new skills and collaborate with a diverse group of colleagues.

When you don’t allow your team to take on challenging tasks or attempt to shield them from challenges, you deny them the chance to master those challenges. By doing so, you’re not only disempowering those individuals, and you might also be depriving them of coaching opportunities.

Give them a sense of purpose

Purpose signifies understanding how one’s work contributes to something meaningful and impactful. When a team can connect their efforts to a larger purpose or mission, their motivation and engagement increase. To empower your team to make informed judgment calls, provide them with a sense of purpose, which offers the context they need to do so effectively.

An engineering team with clarity about why they are doing what they’re doing will make better implementation decisions that align with the “why.” When an engineering team’s purpose is clear, they understand what they are working on, why they are working on it, and how their work will have an impact. By making sure your team is clear on their purpose, you’re empowering them.

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