‘We want to empower our people’
‘We are pursuing an empowerment strategy’
‘We want people to feel empowered here’
There is a lot of talk about the merits of empowerment. I have heard such statements many times and empowerment being one of those overused words in the HR and business vocabulary. It is seen as a reliable element of HR and corporate strategies. And saying we ‘empower’ people as a company sounds great, right?
But what lies behind the desire for more empowerment exactly? What does empowerment really mean?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of empowerment is ‘the granting of power, right or authority to perform various acts or duties’
This raises some interesting issues in relation to the empowerment in workplaces debate.
Firstly, we need to unpack the granting of power definition. It may seem obvious, but if you are talking about granting people power, the inference is they do not have the power, to begin with. If you are deliberately pursuing an empowerment program the suggestion is your current workplace environment is dis-empowering right?
To begin with, I do not believe you can ‘do’ empowerment to other people. True empowerment emerges from within each person. It is shaped and moulded by our environment. In workplaces, it is influenced by many factors, including the leadership mindset adopted, culture, behavioural norms, and structures operating within each organisation. It is impacted by how psychologically safe people feel in their places of work. It is hard to feel empowered if you do not feel safe. It is not something that can just be imposed or rolled out as part of a latest corporate strategic initiative.
Defining ‘empowerment’ as a pillar of our latest HR strategy at a corporate level is a misnomer it itself. The act of defining and then rolling out an empowerment program in a top-down fashion is not empowering. When senior managers get together, agree to push stuff down to people that they then must abide by this is not empowerment. You cannot empower people if you do not genuinely include and involve them. If we are serious about empowering people, we need to also get serious about what granting power really means.
As Patty McCord, author of Powerful [The Netflix Culture Story] says;
People have power. Don’t take it away.
The problem is, too many organisations do take people’s power away.
This can happen without us even realising, especially in many larger organisations where there are layers of hierarchy, complexity and bureaucracy that hinder people every day. These systems of bureaucracy exist due to a requirement to maintain control, and for people to comply, to conform. So many organisations simply want people to come in, do their jobs, and toe the line. They may say they want risk-taking, innovation, and creativity but the culture and managerial structures and behaviour suggest otherwise. The organisation says it seeks empowerment but then actively works against this in terms of people’s day to day experience. People get confused. So often what organisations want is for people to fit in and not rock the boat.
If we are serious about granting power, senior leaders must be prepared to relinquish some power and control. This is easier said than done for many senior managers who have gone through their entire careers seeing the managerial role being about power, status, and authority. They may have worked for many years in cultures which reaffirmed and expected these behaviours. It takes a certain type of leader to park the ego, embrace a selfless approach, and shift the focus and attention to others. If we are serious about granting power, it means truly encouraging others to realise the full extent of their own power. Many senior managers can view this as a threat rather than an opportunity.
It is possible to genuinely provide an empowering environment for people to operate, whilst retaining managerial oversight and overall control.
The relinquishing of power, when done appropriately and with good intent, can be a game-changer. It is possible to genuinely provide an empowering environment for people to operate, whilst retaining managerial oversight and overall control. Many organisations do this by setting parameters for the powers and decision-making authority, within a context of responsible freedom. Having a high trust environment and established, clearly understood principles with highly emotionally intelligent leaders to coach people at all levels are all important contributing factors here. True empowerment also equals enlightenment in my mind. We also achieve better speed and execution of decision making as those closest to the end customer are given the responsible freedom to make decisions that best serve the customer’s needs.
Another dynamic I have seen play out many times occurs when organisations pursue employee empowerment strategies whilst simultaneously having zero tolerance for risk and operating a blame culture if things go wrong. There are some clear pitfalls with such an approach. No organisation on the planet can achieve more creativity and innovation without mistakes also being made. The message for many people can feel mixed. On the one hand, leaders say ‘we want to empower you to make decisions for the organisation’ but on the other hand ‘if we don’t agree or like the decision you’ve made as a result of empowering you there will be repercussions.’ Again, not very empowering when we come to think about it. Sometimes, organisations seek employee empowerment whilst concurrently imposing new rules and procedures which seek to strengthen managerial control and compliance. We need to be vigilant and watch for these types of mixed messages.
The intention behind empowerment programs is undoubtedly sound. The motives are good. It is the execution that often lets things down. When leaders choose to fully explore and understand what they are looking to achieve in their empowerment programs and self-regulate their own emotions when it comes to relinquishing power, they are far more likely to see an impact.
Perhaps we should leave the final word on empowerment to the brilliant John Maxwell.
Leaders become great, not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.