We are all very much aware of staff engagement surveys measuring the levels of empowerment that people within the organisation feel they have. These can cover a range of dimensions but typically when looking at empowerment explore the levels of freedom and autonomy felt by staff at all levels coupled with the degree to which they feel heard in sharing ideas and issues – i.e. these being taken seriously and acted upon.
Empowerment is also one of the frequent challenges that comes up when looking at where shifts in behaviour are needed in leadership. On the face of it and at an intellectual level most senior leaders are open to agreeing that more empowerment is a good thing. When getting under the surface however to define how, where and for whom, this gets a bit more tricky.
All too often the issues of accountability, control, and trust raise their heads. Of course, this isn’t surprising given the centuries of DNA embedded in the way organisations are set up. We are operating still, predominately, on the factory model of production and control of inputs and outputs which remain at the heart of the conscious and unconscious thinking. This, in turn, means that the pyramid structure of hierarchy is never that far away despite flatter or matrix structures being brought in. Consequently, we invest all real responsibility and accountability in the leaders at the top of that pyramid.
If we are to ever to really overcome this ingrained DNA we have to take our courage in our hands and trust our people. For sure that means picking the right people, it means communicating with them well – openly and transparently, and it means ensuring we enable them to be successful by removing structural blockers. All within our gift. And more than that it means letting go of our need to control everything. The courage needed here is to step into a more risk management mind-set where we knowingly and consciously practise taking more managed risk with our people. After all, we generally spend thousands finding them, why would we then throw that all away by constantly tying their hands behind their backs as they seek to make their contribution?
Being willing to loosen our control means we also have to be able to push back with shareholders or global centres demanding unreasonable levels of information or control themselves. We need the headroom to prove that we too can function like the WL Gore’s, Zappos, Morning Star’s of this world – with a deep sense of trust, delegation, and self-management at the core of our culture. If they can do it what’s stopping us?