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Empowering Correctly

Exploring the Team Empowerment Maturity model

31 October 2017

Shane Billings

Fundamental to the application of Agile and Lean is the empowerment of teams and individuals. Many want empowerment within their organization. Unfortunately, empowerment is often misunderstood in its application, becoming ineffective or even destructive. The proper empowerment of teams can be best understood when viewed through the lens of the Team Empowerment Maturity model, which consists of five levels of empowerment.

No empowerment

The lowest level is micromanagement, or no empowerment. Often resulting in a lack of team ownership, this level causes engagement and accountability to be nonexistent. All responsibility lies within a handful of managers. Although they are doing their best, the weight is too much for them to handle all the decisions that the teams place before them. As a result, management becomes a bottleneck because the team does not move without receiving instruction. Team growth is limited. The only management tool to foster improvement is the Pygmalion approach of setting goals that push a team. Such goals can be too lofty and will fall flat because the team does not accept them. This level of empowerment is easily recognizable, because the team often waits for instruction rather than taking initiative.

Conditional empowerment

The next level is conditional empowerment. In this environment, management empowers the team until the perceived consequence of error becomes too great to allow for potential failure. At the heart of this level is the limited trust given to a team in relation to the subsequent consequences. In other words, management trusts only if they think the team will succeed or if the failure is acceptable. This level of empowerment is often temporary and reverts to micromanagement.

Unaccepted empowerment

Unaccepted empowerment, the next level up, is when a team is presented with empowerment but does not accept it by taking on responsibility and accountability. Not every team accepts the empowerment that is offered to them. They may not feel comfortable with the potential failure. Unaccepted empowerment is often a result of an "unsafe" work environment in which employees are punished for failure. In cases whereby the team doesn’t accept authority and management doesn’t own it either, power vacuums can form. These are often filled with the strongest personalities, who may or may not bring success to the organization.

Verbal empowerment

In the paradigm of verbal empowerment, the team is told they are empowered. Management is hands-off while they allow the team to work. The team actively takes ownership of what they can and are able to accomplish, but without engagement of leadership, the team is left to their own devices. The team cares and is engaged and self-motivated but is also limited in their ability to influence their environment. In this case, damage can occur when a team is held accountable for their success or failure without taking into account their reduced capacity to influence a positive outcome. A telltale sign of this empowerment level is that the team is poorly funded outside of their own salaries.

Full empowerment

Full empowerment, the highest level, can only exist with management that embraces the principles of servant leadership. In this level, the team has been empowered and has accepted it, along with the associated responsibility and consequences. In addition, leadership gives them everything they need to succeed, including funding. Obstacles, as defined by the team, are overcome by capable managers.

To be clear, the levels within this model are fluid. Team culture and personalities play a big role. Personnel can push the group in one direction or another. Teams can even show signs of each of the levels. It’s easier to lose empowerment than to gain it. Therefore, conscious decisions should be made to push teams toward higher empowerment.

Few would argue that having a truly empowered team is a benefit to the organization as a whole. It’s simply a question of using the knowledge equity of all versus only a few. Teams in an empowered organization flourish, whereas unempowered teams languish. Empowering must be understood and done correctly to be productive.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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