How to Empower a Distributed Team

How to Empower a Distributed Team for Great Decisions

by | Distributed Teams

We make a lot of decisions every day. Some of them are tiny, like taking a sip of water. Others are mundane but important, like remembering to slow at a yellow light. A few can be critical to the success of your day, week, month… or even career.

In fact, research shows that we might make as many as 35,000 decisions every day. It’s hard to imagine that we make a decision every 2 seconds that we’re awake. 

Decisions should be made by the person closest to the best knowledge. If you’re leading a good team, then that person probably isn’t you.

But as a manager, isn’t it your job to know and decide everything?

Or, maybe, is there a hidden superpower unlocked when you empower your team to make decisions?

Keep reading to learn how empowered teams make the best decisions, and how to create that for your team. 

Clarity + Empowered Decision-Making = The Purpose Your Team Wants

Purpose can be defined as goal orientation, personal meaningfulness, and a focus beyond yourself. 

We’ve previously explored how important it is to provide clarity for your team. Clarity is the same as goal orientation: a vivid understanding of what we’re doing and why it matters. That’s why we said providing clarity is a team leader’s most important job.

Does this all sound nice but a little too theoretical for a day’s work?

Let’s talk about what happens when you empower your team. 

The Perks of Empowered Decision-Making

You could read this line, take our word for it, and skip to the next section: Teams empowered to make decisions dramatically outperform regular teams.

Empowered team members show:

  • Higher motivation regardless of financial incentives
  • Better accountability without being managed
  • More trust in Leadership… even during hard times
  • Faster problem solving within teams and across functions
  • More creativity inside and outsides their roles
  • Bottom line improvements of 20%
  • Stronger and more adaptive processes
  • Delighted customers

Why? Because no one has the best answer but everyone has something to contribute. 

When your team has the clarity you’ve provided, they are naturally and financially motivated to achieve the goal. People like solving problems as much as they like freedom and being respected for their contributions. 

People are natural problem solvers. Let them do what they already want to do.

How to Empower Decision-Making

So, how do you empower team members to make good decisions?

Provide clarity

We covered this topic at length in a previous article. Check it out for a step-by-step guide. 

Create guardrails for decisions

Guardrails are installed along highways to let drivers know where not to drive. Some guardrails keep your car out of a ditch while others keep you from driving off a mountain. 

They aren’t meant to be bumped but if they are, it’s always better than driving into a ditch.

Guardrails for your team work exactly the same – they show your team members where not to go, while providing a cushion in case they bump against those decisions.

Common example of guardrails:

  • “You don’t have to ask me about decisions that cost less than $100”
  • “Just make sure your content aligns with our style guide.”
  • “Have another engineer review your patch before you publish.”

Some decisions are more complex than simple rules can support. Have clarity-focused conversations with your team members so that they understand your goals and why, how to minimize risk, and which kinds of scales of decision are off limits.

Sometimes, a guardrail is better phrased as a thing not to do:

  • “You should never let a major account close without talking to me.”
  • “Don’t create content that you would be embarrassed to see on national news.”
  • “Never crash the product.”

Now that you’ve created clarity and provided guardrails, it’s time to make the leap.

Truly hand over decisions

You only have two choices here: Make every decision yourself, or learn to trust your team.

The first decision might reduce mistakes but it also limits success. You can only make so many good decisions. Your best team members, frustrated, will leave. 

Or, hand over decisions to your team. You’ll know which need to be kept. Challenge yourself to share more decisions with the best performers.

Your team will make bad decisions that you could have avoided. They’ll spend too much on a customer. They’ll make a social post that’s embarrassing. They’ll push a quick patch that harms your uptime metric. 

This is the cost of empowering your team to make good decisions.

The good news? There’s a secret to improving their decisions, fast.

Focus on speed to feedback

The decision’s made. Now is the time to review the decision with your team member. Create safety for this learning moment: it might be your team member’s first independent decision or mistake.

The chilling effect is strongest at this moment. That’s when the fear of punishment discourages someone from doing something, even if no one has threatened them. 

How to provide feedback to improve decision-making:

  • Celebrate the decision – They took the leap. Celebrate. 
  • Listen first – Have them explain the situation, their thoughts and actions, and lessons learned
  • Be timely and specific – Provide detailed feedback about the actual outcome as soon as you can. 
  • Co-create a new best practice – Bring it all together by improving the decision together. 

Congratulations! You’re well-equipped to help your team become empowered decision makers. 

What could possibly stop you now?

Common Obstacles to Empowered Decision-Making

A simple list for empowering decision making makes it sound easy but there are some big challenges, too. 

You have strict rules to follow.

Some industries, projects, and activities have specific rules. Lawyers need to follow the law, manufacturing line workers need to respect safety rules, and accountants have IRS forms to complete.

Follow these rules while looking for ways to explore decision-making with your team.

Your team is inexperienced

Empowered decision-making works because your team has smart, focused people. If your team member has no experience, you’re creating a trap by expecting quality decisions right away.

Give them chances to make decisions appropriate to their skill and your risk. If they can decide, let them. If you can afford to let them make mistakes, let them.

Make the cycle happen faster with tools like hypothetical discussions, sandbox environments, and 1-on-1 coaching. You’ll be surprised how quickly these team members start making good decisions.

Resources and time are limited

Emergencies happen. There may be 10 better ways to achieve a goal, but based on your risk, or time, or money, there’s just no time to explore all the better ways. Or worse, to risk failure. 

When these rare moments happen, take the time to explain why you’re making a unilateral decision. Your team should understand the risk.

When the moment is over, invite your team to provide feedback – you’ll be surprised how much can teach you. 

Then improve how your team works so that you have more time, or money, or tolerance for failure when the next emergency happens.

So, what does all this have to do with Distributed Teams?

Empowered Decision-Making and Distributed Teams

We’ve said it before and will say it again: Providing clarity is your most important job. 

Right after that is empowering decisions.

When your team is distributed, it’s even harder to get everyone on the same page. You can never assume that everyone in the office heard the conversation… because everyone’s not in the office.

More difficult is that your team might work 24/7 across different time zones. Decision and indecision are happening around the clock.

Your team absolutely must be empowered to make good decisions.

Today we’ve explored the importance of empowering good decision-making for distributed teams. What comes next?

Join the Conversation

Extelli lives in the world we’re discussing here… and we would love for you to join the conversation.

Check out our post about this topic on LinkedIn.