Want Them to Succeed? 4 Magic Words to Empower Your People

This week, I’m speaking to a group of secondary school principals in Melbourne, and then travelling to New Zealand to deliver a presentation at the HRNZ (Human Resources Institute of New Zealand) conference. Both presentations are about leadership – in particular, about how to get the best out of your people in a fast-changing world.

It’s not surprising that so many organisations are struggling with this right now. According to XpertHR, finding high-quality talent is the top challenge for leaders in 2019, and there’s no easing up on this pressure.

Make no mistake: The cost of losing good people is huge. But this goes far beyond the cost of employee turnover! Finding and keeping the best people is a key strategic initiative that will help you remain fit for the future. The old style of leadership – hierarchical, obeying orders from the top down – doesn’t work anymore. Not only because your best people will resist it, but because the oldest, most experienced people no longer have all the answers. They did in the past, but they don’t anymore.

The younger, less experienced, less established people are often better than the older, more experienced, more senior people. But you will only get the best from them if you give them two things: the information they need to get things done and the authority to do it.

That’s the real meaning of empowerment.

Giving people information and authority means you’re taking a risk. You know how to use that information and authority wisely, but you’re not sure if they do. On the other hand, if you never give them the chance, they will never learn.

It seems like a Catch-22.

Except it’s not.

Follow the example of Nordstrom, the US department store, which says this to new employees on their first day at work:

Rule #1: Use your best judgement in all situations.

There are no additional rules.

That’s the real key to empowering your people: Build their judgement.

Are you confident enough in your team members’ judgement that you could trust them to act as wisely as you? If you’re not, that’s understandable, but don’t just give up on them. Take the opportunity to build their judgement.

Here’s a simple exercise to try.

The next time you have delegated a task to somebody and they come to you for help, instead of helping them, imagine saying to them:

“I trust your judgement.”

and letting them do whatever they think best.

Keep in mind you’re only imagining saying this! If you realise you can actually say it and trust they will act appropriately, great! Say it, and it will make your life (and theirs) immediately better.

But if you know it would be inappropriate to trust their judgement, then of course you pitch in and help them. But after doing this, ask yourself: Why couldn’t you trust their judgement?

Usually, it’s because of one of three things:

  1. They don’t know what to do.
  2. They don’t know how to do it.
  3. Something is getting in the way.

So, instead of just helping them out this time, figure out what you need to do so that next time, you can use those four magic words:

“I trust your judgement.”

Use this phrase to guide the ongoing development of all your people, regardless of their role, skills, or experience. It will help you choose the experience, training, or whatever else they need to empower them in the future. And it will give them the chance to use their skills and talents to the fullest.


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