So today we’re going to talk about empowerment. Or rather, I’m going to talk about empowerment and you’re going to listen. Ironic, no? You the audience have two choices – listen or leave. Spookily enough this has been my experience in the past under management regimes that claim to have empowered employees. The reality of that relationship too often turns out to be the same no matter what the PR says; do as I say or leave.
Before I go on I should clarify that I’m not talking about my current employer. I’m thinking of examples from past jobs where the desired culture has been set by remote senior leadership, parroted by local senior managers and completely ignored or – worse – denied and obstructed by operational managers.
When we say we want empowered people working for us, what do we mean? As a rule it’s lazy shorthand for “Let’s allow the drones to think they have some control.” As a strategic goal, it’s supposed to lead to innovation, loyalty and productivity. All lovely and scrumptious outcomes.
But here’s the kicker: telling someone they’re empowered does not empower them. It’s not enough to say the words out loud, and I’m afraid even a glossy leaflet and a graphically pleasing framework diagram isn’t going to do it. To empower someone you have to give them power.
Yes, I know it’s obvious. Blindingly so. So why do so many schemes fail? Because for a start, many managers don’t say the right words even to themselves. The strap line will be something like “We aspire to an empowered workforce to drive satisfaction and facilitate innovation”, and nobody translates that into real life aims such as “I will let my people choose their priorities” or “anyone whose job can be done remotely will be able to work from home or other locations as standard”. No one says “That means I don’t control everything any more, and my direct reports can disagree with me and tell me what to do.”
Why not? Why do we not break it down to this level? Because to many managers this is a zero sum game; the more power you give away the less you have yourself, and that’s an uncomfortable thought. Well, tough. I specialise in thinking the unthinkable and expressing it in a way that means you can’t hide from it. So here it is in its simplest form … Empowering your staff means letting them have more control. How much more? Much, much more. Lots more. Not as much as you’re comfortable with, or as much as you think they can cope with, but lots lots more. If this fills you with terror, you have a problem. You believe your staff aren’t capable. Why on earth did you hire them, then?
Also, this is a dual transaction.
I grant power to you, and you can decide to accept it. But, and this is important, you have more leverage in this than I do. If I give and you take all is good. If I offer and you refuse, or pretend to accept then sabotage the situation, you have a great deal of power and control – but it’s being applied in the most negative way. Interestingly, if you want the control and I block you, you still have more power here … because no matter what I think, I cannot control the inside of your head. If you feel you have the skills and the right to express your opinion and work in a way that makes this clear, I can’t prevent you unless I either fire you or push you over a cliff. *
If you’re still reading, you’ll be wondering just how I suggest you empower your staff. Well here’s my plan. Do you have at least one person in your team who’s awkward, lively, always bringing you wild ideas, easily distracted? I’m talking, obviously, about people like me. People who always think they can improve a situation, and assume that everyone is willing to listen. If you haven’t pushed your jargonaut over the cliff yet, then they are your testing ground.
Not for your benefit … Goodness no, you are on your own. That’s why you’re a manager, with all the benefits that go with it. No, you use this person to demonstrate how you view empowered employees. Because the rest of your team will be watching. And if they have any inclination at all to take more responsibility in their role, they will be motivated (or otherwise) by how you treat/support/bury the first person to stick their head above the parapet.
All eyes are on you. ** And remember, if you can’t set a good example you can always serve as a terrible warning.
*Note for managers: you actually can’t push people over cliffs. You’ll get into trouble.
** Don’t panic.