Are we empowering people? Do the people we lead to feel a sense of freedom? Do they follow us because they “want to” instead of “have to”?

If not, we can change that. We can start toward a culture of empowerment by affirming people’s freedom, then reminding them of the principle-driven consequences of their free choices.

Step 1: Affirm Their Freedom

We can start by telling workers they’re free to choose to come to work or not. They’re free to follow orders or defy them. They’re free to show up on time or be late. We can tell them they don’t “have to” do anything, except that one thing I mentioned in the speech I gave my children years back: suffer or enjoy the consequences of their choices. 

Step 2: Remind Them of Principle-Driven Consequences

Leaders must affirm freedom and consequence. But the vital key here is to prove to followers that the consequences are principle-driven and not capricious. Show how the consequences are a natural by-product of principles of teamwork and achievement, not just consequences we will impose because we want to. Capricious consequences, meaning, sanctions against workers by leaders who don’t show a clear and consistent principle for their rationale, will always always always create a culture of resentment and resistance.

There’s nothing a worker hates more about a leader than this. When a leader imposes consequences that don’t seem fair or don’t make sense, trust is lost, and a need for payback is born. Leaders who do this are like criminals running the streets spraying random bullets. When the bullets run out the bystanders attack back. This type of leader eventually becomes vulnerable and gets taken out by the group.

Leaders must constantly point out the consequences and take care to show that they are principle-centered, not personality centered. When leaders show how certain consequences are a natural byproduct of the situation, and not just a product of the leader’s whims, the leader can impose those consequences and still keep respect and trust.

Empowering the Worker Who Consistently Shows Up Late

Edwina has been showing up late to work. It’s been several times now, and we’re her boss. How do we affirm her freedom and responsibility at the same time?

“Edwina, it’s come to my attention that you’ve shown up late three days in the past two weeks. I’d like to talk about that,” we say.

“Okay,” says Edwina. She’s nervous.

“First of all, you don’t have to be on time,” we say. “You’re free to choose to show up late. You don’t even have to come to work at all. You have the power to choose what you do with your life. We all do.”

Edwina is confused at first. It takes a couple of minutes to clarify what we mean, and the conversation validates her sense of power, freedom, and choice.

Then we get into the consequences. “But while we can make just about any choice we want, we can’t choose to avoid the consequences of our choices,” we say. “Every choice we make carries a consequence with it. That’s just the nature of things. Think about planting a seed. Whatever grows there is a consequence of our choice to plant. If we plant a carrot seed, we’re going to get a carrot. We’re not going to get a tomato.”

Notice how we’re pointing to principles, not just our whims. We didn’t just blurt out, “If you show up late again I’m going to fire you.” While that approach might work in the short-run, it breeds resentment when it is perceived as a capricious consequence instead of a principle-based consequence. When followers believe leaders are just imposing consequences rashly and randomly, trust dies and resentment is born. When a leader fails to show the principle behind their sanctions, they come across as manipulators.

But when they point to principles, they come across as fair-minded and trustworthy.

So we point out the principles.We give solid reasons. “When you show up late,” we say, “it affects team morale and productivity. It sends a signal to me and others that you don’t care about your work or that you can’t manage your time. It says you don’t respect the rules or honor authority.”

“We can’t be effective as a group when that happens,” we say. “And since it’s my responsibility to help this group be as effective as it can be, I can’t allow behaviors that undermine team morale and productivity. If you keep showing up late, the only proper thing for me to do is to let you go.”

That’s the negative consequence. The rationale is clear, the principle is evident. This isn’t a power play on the part of the leader, it’s a principle play.

Then the leader can spell out the positive consequences as well as the negatives. “Here’s what I want from you, Edwina,” we continue. “I want you to show up on time. Every time. When you show up on time, you improve morale and productivity. It tells me and others that you care about your work. It says you can manage your time. It says you respect the rules and honor authority. It also empowers you to keep your word and follow through in other areas, not just here. From now on, for yourself, for all of us, show up on time. I believe your new commitment to timeliness will make you better and our group better.”

“Yes, I agree,” says Edwina. “I’m going to show up on time, every time.” She leaves the conversation without resentment, ready to work.

The empowering leadership approach encourages freedom, consequence, and responsibility.