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  • Daniel Matteo, PhD

Empowering leadership breaks the vicious circle

Why is empowering others so important, especially in politics and leadership roles? Yes, it increases team performance.

But there is another, perhaps even more important reason: health & well-being.

A look at the science behind the link between empowerment and health & well-being, and how empowering others can benefit you and others.

The Science of Empowerment and Health

Research shows that feeling disempowered is stressful and can lead to chronically high levels of stress: studies have found that individuals who perceive themselves as disempowered have higher levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This, in turn, can lead to negative health outcomes such as depression, anxiety, and physical illness.

When stress levels remain high, we become more sensitive to stress. Elevated cortisol strengthens the signalling in the hippocampus and amygdala: the myelin that insulates nerves becomes thicker in this region, and electrical impulses are transmitted quicker and more efficiently.

It sounds nice to have when it comes to any useful skill we are practicing. But here, being stressed means we are practicing being stressed, we become better at it and our brains are shaped for it. We become more sensitive to threats and more stress.

This creates a vicious circle.

Breaking powerlessness

When we help others feel empowered, we break this vicious circle.

Empowering others improves their health and well-being, which in turn opens up new possibilities and opportunities. By empowering those around us, we create a positive impact in the world - already. If empowering others can also improve performance, make a project or campaign successful, that is great!

But empowering leadership already pays off in the moment that we practice it, irrespective of the outcome of any project or campaign.

Empowering leadership in practice

So, how can you empower others in practice? Here are some steps:

Active listening

By actively listening to others, you show them that their opinions and ideas matter, and you give them a sense of empowerment. It takes real effort, but with practice, it can become a natural part of how you show up.

  • It involves being fully engaged and showing genuine interest in what they have to say. Start by eliminating distractions and focusing on the speaker. Put the phone away. Close the browser. Mute the notifications. And if, in a virtual meeting, you're distracted by your own beauty, you can hide self-view.

  • Ask open-ended questions to encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings. Be curious and ask real questions, not suggestions in disguise, like "Have you tried...". Once I did a leadership training on coaching skills. And the managers expected to learn how to ask questions to get their people to do what they wanted them to do. That's not empowerment. That's influencing (manipulating?).

  • Paraphrase or repeat what they've said to show you understand their perspective. If an FBI hostage negotiator like Chriss Voss (I'm a big fan of his book 'Never split the difference') uses empathy on criminals, why not show it more towards those we work with?

  • Finally, and if appropriate, go beyond empathy: let them know you're there to support them.

Delegate responsibility

Give others the opportunity to take responsibility, make decisions and grow. This not only empowers them but also lightens your load.

  • This is linked to active listening: rather than hand out advice at the first opportunity, listening gives the other space: to find their own solution and next steps. Advice can, if dished out too soon and too often, take responsibility away aka. 'well, I did what you advice me to do...'. A great book about this is The Advice Trap by Michael Bungay Stanier.

  • In politics and activism especially, I see that this is neglected. Either because people are not skilled at delegating (yes, it's a skill and there are frameworks out there). Or because there is a sense of 'Let me do this, I do not want to burden the volunteers (even though I'm a volunteer myself).

Give effective feedback

By providing effective feedback, you can help others develop and grow, which in turn increases their sense of empowerment.

  • There are two goals of feedback. Either we want to help others develop in a certain area: how they could have done something differently. Or we want to boost their confidence, pointing out how they made a positive impact.

  • There are several frameworks out there like COIN or AID that you can google. The basic idea: point out the specific behavior you observed, say what impact it had on you or others, make a suggestion for what they could do differently. You also want to give timely feedback, especially when using these frameworks (not 3 months later, saying: 'Hey, 3 months ago you said this in the meeting and ...')

Recognize achievements

Recognize and celebrate others' achievements. It boosts confidence and can motivate people. Especially in a volunteer context, it's recognition, not rewards, that counts. People volunteer because they want to contribute and, often, they also want this contribution to be recognized.

Change the world - today, with those around you

In conclusion, empowerment is not just a means toward an end, like boosting team performance.

It's something that matters simply by doing it. You break the vicious circle of powerlessness. It has a real impact on people's health, physical and mental, and can open up and shape a more positive outlook on the world.

It's one of those things we tend to neglect in politics and activism: yes, we want to change society, change the word. And we can start doing that today, in our relationships: through active listening, giving responsibility, providing feedback and recognizing achievements.

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