Three Employee Empowerment Lessons from Show and Tell

“Can I take the puppy to show and tell tomorrow?”

Countless children have asked this question of parents. Parents say no—and kids probably expect that response, but they ask anyway. They understand the power of show and tell and want to make the most of this power. There’s a lot that we can learn from revisiting that elementary-school experience.

In most sectors, including the nonprofit sector, we spend a lot of time “telling.” We email notes, talk in meetings, and share documents. We even take “showing” tools, such PowerPoint, and turn them into “telling” tools that include gobs of text that we read at people. In the process, we miss opportunities for engagement and empowerment. Recognize that how we perform the work that we do every day is important, because it’s not only our thinking that defines our work, but also our actions that bring it to life.

Employee satisfaction is inextricably linked to feelings of empowerment. We know this from the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s research and from similar findings across other sectors. CEP’s Employee Empowerment: The Key to Foundation Staff Satisfaction tells us that a focus on both mission and culture will result in foundation staff who will not just be passionate about the work, but who also will be more aligned on how to accomplish that work. Our sector, for the most part, is chock-full of passion but has some work to do on the alignment of how we use that passion to fuel high levels of employee engagement.

Which brings me back to show and tell, because this childhood activity has many lessons to offer about how we engage with the people around us, meet their needs, and enjoy having our needs met by others. I see this in three dimensions:

  1. Understand empowerment. As CEP has described it, empowerment happens at the employee, supervisory, and foundation levels—and these levels are interconnected. In other words, an employee might have every resource he or she needs, but likely won’t be happy if he or she is not sure how the work connects to the foundation’s goals. Each of us must clearly articulate our mission/vision/strategy, and we must reinforce that through high-quality communications.When we’re managing through change (and which of us aren’t?), it’s important to keep people involved in the process so that change is not just being done to us; it’s with us, for us, and by us. Uncertainty is the enemy of empowerment, so we must create shared understanding—if not certainty—where we can. In doing so, we foster empowerment and bring staff on as partners in working toward a shared vision.Show and tell offers us the most basic of lessons on this point: we must show and not only tell. The actions of leaders across foundations speak volumes about priorities, and we must show staff that we have a clear approach, act in ways that demonstrate progress toward reaching our goals, and support staff members in doing the same. Giving lip service to a strategy or an approach will never foster empowerment as effectively as taking action, or “showing,” staff what we value.
  2. Engage regularly. We must create opportunities for regular, two-way communications in order to build the trust that encourages empowerment. Respondents to the CEP survey placed high value on concepts such as trust, respect, learning, and growth. The best means for meeting these needs within an organization, and thereby building the right kind of culture, is regular engagement through effective two-way communications.Again, show and tell teaches us this lesson in two ways. First, it addresses what engagement really means, because everyone participates. No one takes a back seat, everyone shares, and everyone listens. Second, it takes place on a regular schedule: kids prepare for show and tell and consider what they’ll show every Monday morning, for example. That means that mentally, each kid is preparing for what he or she will show and tell next. Collectively, the group knows that it’s going to have and learn from that shared experience.
  3. Be ready to listen. Staff in our sector are deeply committed to their work, often more so than in other sectors. That commitment is happening on two levels: intellectual and emotional. Although everyone likes to feel heard, the intellectual and emotional commitment of foundation staff takes place at a deeper level. We’re not only talking about people’s jobs, but also their personal missions that manifest in the work that they do every day. So listening takes on even more importance. Listening to staff says that we value them, and hearing what staff have to say can help our work to have greater impact. This two-way street—one where leaders listen and staff are comfortable speaking up—is a street that runs through trusted environments.Everyone listens in show and tell. In fact, it’s what makes the exercise work. We must showcase the importance of listening, model listening, and make it a deliberate part of meetings and gatherings. When we don’t listen, we inadvertently tell our colleagues that we don’t value their ideas. When we talk over each other, we fail to model listening. But when we hear a new point of view, ask questions, or truly brainstorm together, we derive the greatest possible value from our interactions.

As leaders at foundations, we set the stage for staff engagement. This stuff matters, and we can all benefit by becoming more aware of what drives engagement and empowerment. Thanks to CEP for listening to our sector and, through this very thoughtful synthesis of their findings, helping to show us what an effective path forward could look like.


Chris McCrum is Chief Operating Officer at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Join the conversation about this report on Twitter at hashtag #Empower.

Employee Empowerment, foundation staff/program officers, Staff Perception Report
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