True Empowerment is Trusting Enough to Fail

Trust is the highest form of human motivation. It brings out the very best in people. —Stephen R. Covey

F or the last several days, the concept of empowerment has been rolling around in my head and I keep getting glimpses of an equation. Actually, it is more of a proof. Forgive the mathematical reference but bear with me for a moment.  The outline below is organization-centric.

  1. Success equals a profitable, growing business.
  2. A profitable, growing business depends on having a collection of empowered employees.
  3. To empower employees requires that leadership trusts them.
  4. For employees to accept empowerment, they must trust their leaders.
  5. Therefore, to be successful, leaders must create an environment of trust.

Simple enough right? Empower the members of our team and they’ll do great things! Of course, it isn’t quite that simple. True empowerment is built on trust, and trust is a very complicated thing. And yet, trust is also very simple. True trust is not something we give, it is something we earn. It is built one action, one word, one step at a time over a period of time. It is also something that is lost in an instant.

What is trust? Trust is relying on someone else to do or not do something. Trust is having faith in another person. Trust is depending on someone else. Trust exposes us to some level of risk: from mild disappointment to catastrophic betrayal. Trust is built over time and lost in a moment.

True trust is not something we give, it is something we earn.

What does trust have to do with empowerment?  To truly empower your team, you must trust them enough to fail or you aren’t trusting them enough to succeed. Let me repeat: to truly empower your team, you must trust them enough to fail or you aren’t trusting them enough to succeed.

What a frightening concept! We talk a lot about empowerment. We intuitively understand that it is necessary for our organizations to thrive. Yet, we still struggle with actually empowering our people. We could go into many psycho-social directions with this but I don’t want to address control issues in this post. (Check out these two posts for more on this particular issue: Our Need for Control Leads to Disappointment and Unleash Your Team: Remove the Backstop)

Building Trust

If you want to truly empower your team, to help them be their best for themselves and for your organization, you’ve got to trust them. Understanding how trust works and how it is built will empower you to empower them.  Here are three steps to trusting your team:

  1. Start small to trust big.
  2. Give progressive responsibility.
  3. Buffer appropriately.

Start Small to Trust Big Since trust is built through experience, the first step is to give individuals the chance to fail, or succeed. The key is to start small. “Whoever can be trusted with very little, can also be trusted with very much.” Give her a chance for small wins so she can demonstrate to you, and to herself, how well she can perform. This process builds confidence for both of you and begins steadily building the trust necessary to progress.

Give Progressive Responsibility Confidence and trust move in parallel directions for you and for your team members. The small successes aggregate into increasing levels of trust. Giving someone additional responsibility or higher risk tasks/projects increases his confidence, shows that you trust him, and gives you a better idea of his capabilities and capacity. Conversely, if you aren’t giving progressive responsibility, it sends a message that you don’t trust him or are not confident in his abilities to do more. Intentional or not, the message will be sent.

Buffer Appropriately We all have different risk tolerances. To build trust, you need to understand yours and your team member’s risk threshold. In order to build trust, there must be an opportunity to fail. However, catastrophic failure is not good for anyone and you need to buffer appropriately. This is not backstopping. When we backstop (see post referenced above), we are in effect assuming responsibility.

To build trust, there must be accountability and true opportunity to fail (or at least make mistakes). On the other hand, buffering is not putting a team member in a situation where failure is fatal. i.e. “If you don’t close this deal, we are going out of business.” Very few of us will perform optimally under these conditions. Buffering allows you to mitigate your risk while giving your employee the chance to succeed, or fail, in bigger ways – non-catastrophically.

The Other Side

There is another side to empowering your team. They have to accept it. How do you get your team to accept the empowerment you want to give? They have to trust you. You might ask, “why wouldn’t they trust me?” Let me count the ways…

Remember, trust is a two-way street. Everything you say and do increases or decreases how much your team trusts you. Do you do what you say you’re going to do in the little and the big things? Do you trust them enough to allow them to fail? Do you give them the tools, direction, and support they need to succeed when you give them an assignment? Do you look at mistakes as learning opportunities? Are you consistent? Are you emotional? All of these things add up – in one direction or the other.

Everything you say and do increases or decreases how much your team trusts you.

Ultimately, for your team to accept empowerment, you must convince them that failure is not fatal. How do you accomplish this?

  • Be clear in defining success, and failure. The worst case scenario should never be catastrophic.
  • Communicate that giving progressive responsibility is intentional. It affirms that you see a path and that you are deliberately assigning difficulty by your measure of their capabilities.
  • Do what you say you’re going to do. When bumps in the road appear, be steady, be supportive, be consistent. Your integrity and follow through will build your employee’s trust in you and in herself. This is particularly true for little things. We almost always underestimate how they add up.
  • Celebrate wins, and losses. Ok. I know we don’t really want to celebrate failures and mistakes. However, lessons learned in failures will bring you closer to the next win. Finding a way to acknowledge that and turn the mistake into an opportunity will go a long way toward reinforcing your message: I trust you. I buy in. I believe you can do it. We are in this together.


My conclusion? To be successful, we need to empower our teams and true empowerment is trusting them enough to fail. When we give a person enough latitude to fail, we say “I trust you. I believe in you. I’ve got your back.”

By exposing us, and them, to the possibility of failure, we are empowering them to succeed through being the best version of themselves. We are giving them the chance to grow by allowing them to take responsibility and be accountable for a result. This empowerment translates into the “flywheel effect” and an increase in organizational momentum independent of our direct effort. (Read more here: To Accelerate Growth, Remember the Flywheel). It is a powerful multiplier and creates a win for all involved.  Remember, trust => empowerment => success.  Looks like the right formula to me.


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