Design Leadership: On Trust and Empowerment

Creating a space for people to thrive


Matthew Godfrey

3 years ago | 5 min read

This is the third in a series of articles on the subject of design leadership (here are the first and second instalments).

In this article, I’m going to attempt to dig into your role as a leader to build trust and empower others; creating both a safe and challenging environment in which folks can grow and thrive.

Creating a space for people to thrive

With a mission to create teams and set them up for success in our organisations comes the responsibility to create a culture in which that team can thrive.

We go to great lengths to hire great, talented people, so our duty as leaders is to ensure we’re utilising and nurturing the skills for which they were employed. Setting them, and by virtue the wider team, up to succeed.

How do you, as a leader, create the right environment where people can do their best work? How do you enable people to leverage and play to their strengths? How do you recognise when you’re overstepping as a leader and starting to stifle those around you?

It starts with you and your outlook on management and leadership Do you possess and practice a mindset and philosophy around empowering others? As a leader, your role isn’t to solve all of your team’s problems, nor is to deliver exemplary design work, it’s about fostering the capability, impetus and belief that others can and should do that for themselves.

Trust and safety are key here. People need to to be able to put themselves forward, take risks, raise concerns and enact change without fear of judgment and free from the governance and all-seeing the eye of management.

Our job here is to lead, not to manage. To motivate more and demand less. To create a team of self-sufficient, problem-solvers, not a network of dependency where you, as the leader, are the single point of failure.

As Grace Murray Hopper once said:

“You manage things, you lead people”.

Leading through empowerment

The idealistic view is one of empowered, self-sufficient teams who feel supported in doing their best work. Where it follows that the more we empower others and create the environment in which folks can succeed, the greater the likelihood that they will experience personal growth and individual success.

However, trust is the kicker! Without trust, we can’t sustain a healthy state of empowerment.

At one extreme we are ‘that boss’. A lack of trust sees us bias towards a style of leadership that is more directive and seeks to micro-manage every situation. We bring everything under our immediate control to ensure it’s ‘done right’.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times where a more directive approach is right and applicable, but we create a lot of problems where this becomes our default.

Talented folks you’ve hired, many of whom will likely have more experience than you in certain areas, will be sidelined and worst still, demotivated, where not given the opportunity to act autonomously.

In contrast, in the the scenario where there are high levels of trust and respect for the skills and experiences of the team, the leader assumes more of a coaching role, providing the right level of support as and when needed.

The result is empowered individuals who act autonomously, operate without scrutiny and use their best judgement to solve problems in the way they see fit and appropriate.

Trust and empowerment go hand-in-hand.

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach and we must flex accordingly per individual and per scenario, but as a principle, learning to trust and allowing folks the opportunity to earn it is something all leaders have to work at. For most, it doesn’t come naturally and unfortunately is often very hard to rebuild when compromised.

Trust-Empowerment Chart.

Balance of safety and accountability

As I mentioned earlier, creating a safe environment, one that is free of judgment and encourages failure is a foundation for any high-performing team. But safety and accountability are not mutually exclusive.

Accountability is defined as:

“The fact of being responsible for what you do and able to give a satisfactory reason for it or the degree to which this happens.”

You can and I’d argue should create a culture of high accountability without fear of compromising a teams’ sense of psychological safety. Accountability is a key component of trust. As leaders, we are reliant upon individual accountability to evidence consistency through action and credibility through outcomes.

In this below model, which I’m referring to as the ‘trust triangle’, there are three key components of trust:

Opportunity: Identifying the right opportunities for folks to lead and be accountable for a particular outcome; based on a combination of skill and experience, or the need for stretch and exposure.

Empowerment: Creating the right conditions and employing the right mindset that sets individuals up to succeed through their own merits; including the authority and autonomy to make decisions and act independently.

Accountability: Ensure individuals recognise and take ownership of a responsibility; taking steps to ensure progress is visible and that they can reason and rationalise when this isn’t happening.

The Trust Triangle.

These three components create a virtuous cycle of leaders providing opportunities, empowering others to act in a self-directed way, with individuals that recognise the need to demonstrate accountability through action and results. Where any of these components are missing, trust quickly begins to erode!

Trust is a two-way street

Trust is a two-way street.

You, as a leader, have to trust in the people you’ve hired and those on your team need to trust in you, as their leader, to provide them with the support they need. Similarly, they will also expect a level of consistency and a degree of accountability when it comes to you and your actions.

It’s this reciprocal nature of trust that is so important, but easy to overlook. Often we expect others to trust us either by virtue of our role or some sense of entitlement, but just as we look to others to earn our trust, their trust in us must also be earned.

How often do we find ourselves compromising our leadership approach or principles of empowerment? In times of pressure, do we unwittingly slip back towards a position of distrust and direction? Do we fail to live up to our promises and default on others’ expectations of us?

The next time you pause to think about your current leadership situation and empowerment dynamics, consider the following:

  • Is there a high level of safety amongst you and the team?
  • Do you provide folks in your team with the right opportunities?
  • Do they have all the support they might need to succeed?
  • Are they truly empowered to make decisions and act independently?
  • Are people held to account where they are responsible for an outcome?
  • Are you true and consistent in your leadership principles?
  • Does trust exist and is it reciprocal?


Created by

Matthew Godfrey







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