Don't Assume Everyone Wants to be Empowered

Empowerment is the right thing to do. But it will require skilled managers, time and patience to get everyone on board.

Every day more press surfaces encouraging employers around the world to empower their employees. Empowerment leads to the other popular E-word of the day - Engagement. More and more studies support the fact that Empowered employees are Engaged employees, and Engaged employees are Productive employees. 

I believe that to be true. I always have. I truly believe that how something is accomplished is an individual process and when the individual process  is respected a better product comes out the other end. Besides, if I've hired someone for their intellectual capability I expect them to accomplish a goal by exercising it. 

I've always worked this way. So, I also know that not everyone wants to be empowered. 

Because of the way our school systems have programmed our reward systems a large category of people simply want to know ‘what’s on the test?’. They want to get the answers right and they want a perfect score. That score is how they value themselves. It’s how their teachers valued them. It’s how their parents valued them…

Thanks to educational systems that increasingly reduce every element to a scorecard, no surprise that the system output - people, are hard-wired to bow to the scorecard.

My approach has always been to ask people to accomplish a specific goal. I provide constructive feedback on the iterations they bring forward until they’ve shaped a great result. However, sometimes when people are given feedback their initial reaction is that they’ve failed. They either get defensive to me - or after they leave my office: “She didn’t tell me how to do it, or provide me any template but she was quick to let me know what she doesn’t like.”.

I’m happy to give people space and provide feedback privately until I feel they’ve produced a public facing deliverable - even if it takes 10 rounds. I had one employee who had physical reactions to our review sessions. She would turn redder with every point of discussion and I could see her temperature rise as the minutes passed. Afterwards,  she would return every 30 minutes with a ‘correction’. It took me a couple of years for her to see that the process was about improving the result, not scoring her. She did not enjoy the journey to empowerment. 

Over time, she and any other resistors got it. They knew I wasn’t going to hold their hand. They were happy to be empowered and once they understood the process they looked forward to receiving feedback - because they understood it would improve their work. They learned to appreciate the experience of personal improvement. But they also understood the importance of shifting their focus from personal scorecards to the work.

It surprised me that I would sometimes struggle to empower people in a 50-person software company of creatives; where our hiring process and our recruiters were all very clear about how we worked; where we had built a culture built on principles of empowerment - where expectations should have been set. But a lifetime of institutional scorekeeping is tough to crack, even for those that think that’s what they want.

My number one resistor - the one that would sweat her way through the process, was also the most outwardly creative and talented employee I interviewed and employed. I never would have suspected that she would be so loathe to be given an open field in which to produce her work. 

Lesson: on the path to creating an innovative culture don’t make assumptions about what people want, or are prepared for. If the terms of engagement that they entered into 20, 10 or ever 2 years ago are such that, 'We’ll tell you what to do and we’ll rate you on how well you do it - if you score high you’ll receive 5% annual raise, and a 10% bonus.', they may not embrace the scorecard being torn up and replaced with a new and simple focus on results. 

Let’s face it, there are many people that can rate high on organisational scoresheets and not really accomplish a lot overall. They get the system, they game it, they get paid and they’re happy. Those people don’t want to be empowered. 

Empowerment is the right thing to do. But it will require skilled managers, time and patience to get everyone on board. And an acceptance that some will look for safe cover in a less enlightened company. This, for example, would be a bad time to score your management on retention numbers because they will likely dip before they stabilise. Don’t panic. On the other side will be a business that is competitive and can compete for top talent. 

So, don’t make an assumption that a mandate of empowerment will solve your engagement issues tomorrow. Likewise don’t use the resulting turmoil as evidence that it’s not the right thing to do. It’s a transition. 

What actions can you take as you start on your journey to an empowered workforce?

Start with management. If they don’t want to be empowered, they’re not going to be supportive of the efforts. Help managers understand what their future role looks like - shapers not controllers. Empower them to write their own new job vision and work with them to shape it until they get it. That process will allow both you and them to understand whether or not it’s going to work. It will provide far more sustainable results and insightful feedback than sending them off to a training course.

Loosen up. Before you empower anyone you need to take a good long look at your internal controls. Empowerment implies trust so if you’re internal policies imply the opposite that hypocrisy will undermine your efforts. For example, don’t ask people to be in a chair by 9am if there is no real reason for them to be and don’t ask them to cut their vacation short because they haven’t ‘earned enough days’. Loosen up your controls to your own point of comfort and regularly re-evaluate.

Communicate organically. This is a tricky balance and where many organisational change efforts go off the rails. Don’t send out regular email blasts or start an ‘Empowerment Success Newsletter’, that will make it seemed contrived and Flavour of the Month. Communication should feel natural. Integrate evidence of success in mainstream company communications weaving in case studies and examples of what people have accomplished - all without actually using the words ‘empowerment’.

Be patient. Change is slow, tough and often ugly. The leaders at the top must truly, philosophically believe that an empowered employee is a productive employee and that competitive, innovative businesses need to attract the best people. Executive leaders should be unwavering in their commitment to change. Too often they're the ones that demonstrate impatience - at which point the whole thing will unravel. 

When you’re turning the ship from an industrialised culture to an innovative one you’re already behind those upstarts that get to set the rules right from the start. But if you want to be in the innovation race you need to at least be racing on the same track.

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Thanks - Shelley.

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