Why Do It?
Empowerment seems to have become an over-used term, often regarded as too vague or fluffy. So what is the real meaning of empowerment and why do it? According to dictionary definitions, there are two sides to the empowerment coin. One is to invest someone with power or authority; in other words, to delegate. The other meaning is to equip them with the ability to use that power and authority.
Proponents of empowerment have hard-edged economic outcomes in mind, going beyond the goals of increasing happiness and satisfaction of individuals. They’re also seeking the practical and strategic goals of organizational innovation, customer problem solving and lifting productivity. They see empowerment as a path to increase pro-activity, autonomy and a sense of ownership throughout the company.
In today’s business world, the demand for agility and fast learning within teams and across organizations is even higher. In the face of the VUCA world (it’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), the ability to gain and discard knowledge, and to act without certainty or pre-established rules, is essential for survival and makes ‘empowerment’ a no-brainer.
“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” –Steve Jobs
Why Not ‘Just Do It’? (or, what leaders are afraid of)
If the benefits of empowerment are so clear, why don’t we all ‘just do it’? What stops us from building a culture of empowerment? Maybe it’s the fear of what could go wrong – what if I empower people and they go too far and make a mess of things? After all, as a leader, you’re the one responsible for making sure that things run well. However, that fear of what might go wrong can lead to too much control, often called micromanaging, and that’s disempowering to others, who end up feeling their contribution is unimportant.
People need to have confidence that they have the resources to act and solve a problem. For that reason, the leadership mindset of ‘how do I set them up for success’ (rather than telling them how to do it), is at the heart of the matter. We must face our own fear of what might happen when we relinquish control, and do it anyway. As the economist, Friedrich August von Hayec, said, “Our faith in freedom does not rest on the foreseeable results in particular circumstances, but on the belief that it will, on balance, release more forces for the good than for the bad…. Freedom granted only when it is known beforehand that its effects will be beneficial is not freedom.”
Forgotten Power (or, what we’re all afraid of)
It’s not only hesitation to relinquishing control in management that hampers the road to empowerment. Many people in organizational life at all levels have simply forgotten their own power. They have learnt to buckle under, to stick to the known and many live in fear. They fear their boss, fear losing their job, fear not getting on with their colleagues, fear failure… and this leads to a learnt helplessness and a lack of self-empowerment, often based on rational choices. You, as a manager, might begin to provide a culture of empowerment and find that your employees don’t take the initiative. This is because of learnt helplessness that has developed over the years. Employees with this challenge can be likened to the Thai elephants who were tethered with an 18-foot lead from the time they were young and didn’t discover they could break the tether as they grew stronger; even as adults without the tether, they won’t go further than 18 feet. Like this, in the context of organisations , we can fail to see how much choice and how much strength we actually possess.
These preconceptions of our own power can mean good intentioned “giving” of empowerment results in cynicism and even panic in the team. People might not see the benefits of empowerment, and only see unguided and unresourced work, which will cause them to feel panicked and unprepared. Human beings exist in three states: the comfort zone, where we function automatically, comfortably and often without even thinking; the stretch zone, which is the learning zone where we are consciously thinking about what we’re doing and applying effort to it; and finally, the panic zone, where things are overwhelming and happening too quickly and we are unable to think clearly.
What Motivates People?
A leader’s responsibility is to help people to expand their stretch zone: where they can learn, grow and be empowered. In the stretch zone, we’re curious, open, engaged, pro-active and present; we listen, experiment, learn and practice. This is a level of consciousness beyond the auto-pilot of sleep-walking through our workday.
The good news is that people want this level of consciousness for themselves. We all yearn for work that engages us this way. Take the work of Shawn Achor and Dan Pink . They notice people being productive in happinessand motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose.
But there is a hurdle to overcome, as we each must tackle the fear of failure that dominates so many of our organizational cultures. While most human beings want to do nothing but the right thing, our organizations hold fear as a driver, and in that context, people fear the eye of criticism far more constantly than they feel a hand of support at their back.
In the words of Benjamin Zander, who believes in giving his students an “A” at the beginning of class and then letting them live up to it — practicing the art of possibility in the very words we use to encourage and teach others (https://youtu.be/qTKEBygQic0). That’s an environment where empowerment can thrive.
High Delegation + High Support
It’s important to make sure that employees don’t feel that they’re being “empowered” to do more work without having the capability, resources and support for it. Like the metaphor of driving, if we want people to take high responsibility for how they drive their car, for the safety of their car and for their passengers, as we all do? for others on the road, then agreed upon rules and support for learning are also required. We call this ‘freedom within a framework’.
What does this high delegation and high support require in the context of your leadership and your teaming?
If you want to empower others, you should ask yourself how you can serve the happiness and empowerment of your colleagues and your teams. How can you make a difference? Consider the impact your own behavior has on others. Each of your conversations can bring increased power to the other person. Increasing both the authority given to the other person and your support will increase that person’s self-responsibility and sense of ‘I can do it’. Increased self-responsibility increases a person’s capability to live in the stretch zone.
One Conversation at a Time
By tacking this “One Conversation At a Time ” you cannot go wrong. You can change the culture of an organization step by step, one conversation at a time. You control yourself and your actions. If you don’t get it right the first time around, you can come back at it again and again. There is no a ‘wrong thing’ to do, there is only learning.
Three types of mutually empowering conversations are :
1. More Authentic Appreciation There are many times we think something positive about a member of our team, but we never actually voice it. The key to authentic appreciation is to be specific. Instead of saying, “Thank you for your work on this,” consider saying, “Meghan, last week when you offered to help me with my project, I felt really supported and relieved, whereas before I had felt stressed and overwhelmed. You have helped me a lot.Thank you.”
2. More Inquiry Put yourself in the shoes of the other person and ask that person to explain whatever you need to understand their. Be curious about what is happening for them especially when something goes wrong. Discover their perspective and listen to them with patience.
3. Mutual Learning Conversations These are conversations that are set up to solve a problem together, while always empowering and supporting the other person. Use phrases like: “What would you like to have happen?” “Given that, what is under your control?” “What could you do?” and “What help can I offer to help you achieve that outcome?” You can also ask questions that empower them to be part of the solution, putting themselves in the picture. That’s empowering.
And, in summary, these tips…
- Listen, be curious, ask people what they think
- Give honest and appreciative feedback as a way of life; catch people doing good
- Freedom within a framework, be highly transparent about boundaries and expectations (not about the details)
- Magnify courageous actions, expand confidence that risk taking is learning, is worthwhile
- Encourage what is under their control, rather than focusing on them and theirs, look at me and mine, we and ours
- Be available for mutual learning conversations
- Put your “red pen” away
As a leader, asking yourself, “What will I do to serve the happiness and engagement of my colleagues and my team today?” – that’s empowerment.