Empowerment....yeah, right!

Empowerment has got to be one of the most over used words in the modern business lexicon. Everyone talks about how important it is but if there is ever a word that qualifies for the “Easy to talk the talk but walking the walk, that’s completely different” award, then surely it’s the word empowerment.

Why is this?

There are two fundamental reasons as I see it, both rooted in the mindset involved…

  1. While the notion of being empowered sounds good and makes perfect rational sense, at an unconscious level many people don’t actually want to be empowered. They actually quite like being told what to do and feel safer when they are. Being accountable and having choices can be difficult. All of a sudden I have to think for myself. I have to use my judgement. I have to live or die by my decisions. Not sure I fancy that! Far too much responsibility. In addition, many people have operated for so long within command and control infrastructures with their inherent parent/child dynamic, that they don’t necessarily feel able or equipped to take on this extra responsibility. The world of business has spent so long exerting more control, introducing more standardisation, requiring greater compliance etc. that it’s pretty unrealistic to now say to people that you are fully empowered and expect them to 1) believe it and 2) take to it like a duck to water.  
  2. The people doing the empowering are not going the whole nine yards. There are several reasons for this. Chief among them is that the people doing the empowering don’t fully trust the people they are empowering to deliver. This may sound harsh but at the root of it all, it is often true. For the reasons described above, this shouldn’t be such a shock. It’s not easy or indeed, comfortable, handing accountability onto people who are not used to or skilled in handling that accountability or making decisions they are not used to making. They think “I am still on the line for this so I need to be on top of it”. So micro managing – that thing no-one admits to doing but pretty much everyone has experienced at some point – is still rife. In addition, the challenges around relinquishing control and letting go are well publicised – for example: fears around not being needed, not being as important, not being in control etc. Therefore the psychology plays a major part as well.

So what can be done to make real empowerment possible? The following come to mind…

  • Evolve organisational structures to facilitate a greater likelihood of empowerment - The structures we work within play a central role in our psyche around work and there is a huge amount of research and real life examples of how to make decentralised organisations a reality. This includes the subject of Holocracy – as pioneered by Zappo’s and others – and the very thought provoking work on ‘Teal’ organisations described by Frederic Laloux in his seminal book ‘Reinventing Organisations’. This provides detailed research and practical insights on subjects such as team autonomy, devolved responsibility and organisational adaptability.
  • Build a stronger propensity to trust. In his book ‘The Speed of Trust’ Stephen MR Covey (son of the late Dr. Stephen Covey) distinguishes very clearly between being naïve in extending trust (Blind trust), showing no trust at all and employing the notion of step by step empowerment combined with a degree of analysis and assessment (Smart trust).  
  • Finally and crucially – build people’s capability to exercise judgement and take responsible decisions under pressure. As those that attended our Secret Source of Outstanding Leadership event in November last year will remember, it is possible to strengthen this capability and indeed, there are more and more examples of organisations actually investing in this area of expertise. If we really want our organisations to succeed in making the transition to a culture where people outside the top team can be fully empowered to make crucial decisions and take on greater responsibility and accountability, then it makes complete sense to proactively enhance their ability to do so. Not only will this increase the competence and willingness of the individuals being empowered, but it will also increase the likelihood of those doing the empowering doing it with genuine confidence.