AKA Building an Empowered Team

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The “A” Team

35 years ago, we had the “A” Team with Mr. T as B.A. Baracus.  20 years ago, two researchers descending from North Carolina sought to find out what a truly “A” team was.  We’re glad they did, because this landmark study published in the Academy of Management Journal was groundbreaking at the time.  It may be a bit obvious today, but this study of theirs gave new meaning to what we’ve all come to cavalierly refer to as teamwork, and it still offers lessons for leaders today.  
Old wine in new bottles?  Perhaps.  But in 1999, Bradley Kirkman and Benson Rosen garnered some fame by taking what was an individual concept—that of empowerment—and applying it to teams.  In the annals of history, they’ll be forever known as the scholars who brought us empowered teams.  Put that on the gravestone!
The Essence of Empowered Teams  
Out of the gate, they made a case that all empowered teams share four defining characteristics: potency, or the collective belief that the team can be effective, meaningfulness, which refers to the belief that a task is important and worthwhile, autonomy, or the degree to which the team has freedom to make its own decisions, and impact, which means that the work they do has organizational consequences.  If they would’ve stopped there, they’d be at a community college.  But they’re not.  They did much more.  
The Research 
Theorizing is one thing.  Testing their hunches is something very different.  But they did it.  In fact, they visited four organizations, two of which were major Fortune 500 types.  The other two were like the Kimono, small outfits.  These firms included textile, technology, and insurance sectors.  Each organization had formally recognized and instituted some type of work-teams.  Based on interviews and surveys, they created an empowerment index based on the dimensions mentioned above: potency, autonomy, meaningfulness, and impact.   
The critical thing about this research begins with the results.  Teams that scored higher on the empowerment scale also tended to perform better across a bunch of objective areas like productivity, proactivity, and customer service.  More highly empowered teams also did quite well in achieving some “psychic” benefits.  In other words, they liked their job more and were more committed to the organization.  Numbers don’t lie; these relationships were all statistically significant.  That means you can trust ‘em.
Factors that Create Empowerment within Teams
We can imagine someone summoning Captain Obvious right about now.  But the story doesn’t end here.  One of the more interesting tidbits to come from their work was for them to identify the factors that allow for, or create, empowerment within teams. And it has nothing to do with Harry Potter magic. Again, we’re blinding you with science, but all of this they measured using scientifically reliable and valid scales.  And a couple of lessons emerge here.  Raise your pointer finger with us as we give a shout out to the importance of the external team leader.  Teams report to somebody or someone, right?  Here, they found that if the external leader that the team reported to was supportive, non-directive, and didn’t get too much into their shit, there was a greater chance that the team would be empowered.  Next, let’s raise our middle finger.  Not in that way, but to come to point #2.  These enlightened scholars provide evidence that when the team had control of its own production schedule and owned much of the decision-making process related to service delivery, they also exhibited higher feelings of empowerment.  Lastly, HR systems seemed to play a role in whether a team was highly empowered or not.  In particular, when teams enjoyed cross-training opportunities and team-based activities, as opposed to individual rewards and pay, they were often more empowered.  
So What Does it All Mean? 
At the Kimono, we know that finding truly empowered teams is a lot like finding an albino deer.  They exist.  They’ve been photographed in the wild.  But they’re rare.  We get a glimpse of why from this study.  It takes a deft leader who won’t micromanage a team to foster true empowerment.  That also means giving the team some level of autonomy to make their own decisions as it relates to product delivery and quality.  All of this is scary for a leader who may feel like he or she’s giving up power to the people.  But to build a true “A” Team, that’s what you’ll need to do.  

Now, let’s get em, B.A. 
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