The Empowerment Myth

In a recent meeting with a client, we were discussing ways to increase productivity and commitment among their employees and management.  Through the course of our discussion, I learned this problem is manifesting in several ways:

  • employees are often late in meeting deadlines and the quality of their work is, at best, adequate

  • in their call center, customers routinely request to speak to a supervisor rather than deal with a first-line representative (supervisors are frustrated with taking so many calls)

  • overtime is skyrocketing because projects have to be re-worked at the last minute

  • as CEO “he’s tired of having to answer question after question”

In the same discussion, I asked the CEO to characterize the culture he has created.  He started by saying that he trusts his team and that he empowers them.

I then said “empowerment is a myth”.

He looked at me—bewildered and little miffed.

He said, “but I always say things like ‘I empower you to get this done on-time!’  I’ve been taught from others that this is how you get people motivated.”  Alas, I said that he was neither empowering nor motivating someone by his words.  Instead, he was just telling them what to do, when to do it, and probably implying how to do it.

I went on to say that you can’t empower anyone.  Rather, you can only create an environment where people will use the power they already have.  I confessed to him, then, that the usage of “empowerment” was a pet peeve of mine.

Long ago I learned the important nuance behind this definition of the word.  In considering these differences (from the traditional thinking about empowerment), means that as a leader you must create an environment which contains:

  1. trust—consistent behaviors that display respect, sincerity, support, and that also parallel your own words

  2. freedom—an environment that encourage innovation and creativity in solving problems and delivering on promises while also providing acceptable, and well-explained, parameters

  3. communication—realization that everything you do sends a message whether it is spoken, demonstrated, or otherwise conveyed

We then talked about these elements and, in particular, their presence in the four examples mentioned early.  He quickly realized that he had created an environment where no one felt they could make a decision, solve a problem, or even complete an assignment without checking and double-checking with him.  In essence as he put it “I have a powerless team.  And I bet people will start leaving now that the job market is improving.”

I said I would not go that far yet as there were no other signs that people were looking to leave the organization.  Yet, he needed to adjust the culture to prevent this.  And to prevent what I think is even worse—people who mentally leave a job but keep coming into the office.  Such behavior is completely counter-productive and can work to demoralize an organization.

He then asked how to start the change.  I recommended that he begin by first publicly telling people that he has inadvertently created this power-less culture.  Then, and most importantly, he has to grow the new culture with his behavior.

About a week after this, I had the chance to attend his all-employee meeting where he talked about changing the culture.  He did a very good job at being clear about the past as well as the future.  He talked about why things had to change.  And he candidly spoke about his role in creating the situation.  He was forthright and genuine. 

And he never mentioned the word “empowerment”.

In our last meeting he was ecstatic.  Why?  Because he had just hung-up with his biggest customer who said they had noticed that his employees were more attuned to the issues and were providing consistent, helpful information. 

What made him beam was that he was not fully aware that this was happening.  Yet, he admitted that he had noticed that he wasn’t getting the usual complaints from the customer, his management team, and even employees.  And he noticed that he now had time to work on expanding the company rather than worrying about the daily operations.

That’s the beauty of creating an environment where people utilized their innate power to advance the organization.

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