How to Empower Your Team to Make Progress

This blog continues my series on two questions great leaders ask themselves. The first question was: “Am I a leader worth following?”

The second question all great leaders ask themselves is: “Am I building teams built to last?”  There are three components to this question:  Engage, Empower and Equip.

Today’s blog will focus on Empower.

The Long Walk

It was a short distance in kilometres, but felt like the longest walk home ever.  I had just come out of a day meeting with a group of managers, who confided in me how disempowered they felt.  I felt an incredible weight on my shoulders and pressure in my mind to fix the problems that were causing them to not feel empowered.

Often when stressed or struggling with a problem, I listen to a podcast, read or watch a TED talk in hopes of getting some insight or inspiration.  Fortunately, on that walk I had Harvard Business Review’s podcast interviewing Dan Pink, who had just released his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Drives Us.

To this day I go back to what Pink teaches about what truly allows team members to feel empowered.  “The biggest motivator at work by far is the sense of making progress.”  A leader’s job isn’t to fix all the problems, but rather to empower your team to make progress.

Why is progress so important?

Progress is key because it addresses the essential motivators of your team members to feel empowered.  Perrin and Blauth (2011) write, “Many leaders see motivation as a game of rewards and punishment.  Forget the cash.  Forget the threats.  To engage today’s workforce, a leader is well advised to see the heart of what motivates people: their three basic psychological needs.”

Historically, motivation has focused on external factors like pay, bonuses and promotions.  However, recent research focused on Self-Determination Theory (SDT) has challenged much of what we believe about motivation.  Since the 1970s a lot of research has shown the negative impacts of external rewards:

  • Rewards consistently undermine long-term motivation and performance.
  • Motivation is undermined if you are rewarded for something you already like to do.
  • Rewards make it more challenging for team members to solve complex problems and be creative.

SDT research has shown that leaders who focus on internal motivation created empowered teams that achieve results and have a sense of progress.  The three psychological factors leading to internal motivation are Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.


We are innately self-directed. This is best shown by how children play and explore all on their own.  As former Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”  Do you give team members real control over various aspects of their work?  Do you help your team members make progress by giving meaningful feedback?  Do you provide a choice of how to do things or do you micro-manage?  Do you provide encouragement when things aren’t on track?


A sense of progress, not just in our work, but our capabilities, contributes to our inner drive. Everyone wants to feel valued as skilled, experienced and knowledgeable.    Do you allow your team members to hone and demonstrate their skills?  Do you provide opportunities for team members to demonstrate competence and support their development?


Individuals who find purpose in their work unlock the highest level of motivation.  Connecting to a cause larger than yourself drives deep motivation.  Do you help your team members connect to something larger than themselves?  Do you allow them go beyond measurement by numbers and figures, and connect work to people and values?

Leaders can’t create internal motivation for someone, but they can support it by creating an environment that allows team members to satisfy their need for Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.  This was recently corroborated by a study that Google released on how to build a successful team.  They thought they could find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for the perfect team.  Turns out, who is on the team matters less than how the team members interact (purpose), structure their work (autonomy) and view their contributions (mastery).

There is no magical algorithm!  Building an empowered team is hard work.  Let’s get to it.  The results are worth it!

In next month’s blog, I will be writing about Equip, the third component of the question “Am I building teams built to last?”

Feel free to check out my other blogs in this series on leadership:

2 Fundamental Questions All Great Leaders Ask
15 Competencies of Great Leadership
Great Leadership Requires Commitment
Why Character Matters
Building a Team to Last Through Engagement

For more FREE RESOURCES, visit our resources page. 


John Neufeld

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Learning

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