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Anton Franckeiss

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From delegating to overtaking: the purpose of empowerment


Empowerment is not delegation or buckpassing or abnegation. So what is it, how can you nuture it and help your employees achieve it?

Empowerment is a powerful thing, but one that strikes me as being too often confused with other things. It isn’t, as we would all acknowledge, delegation: delegation is a process by which someone working for you takes on some of your responsibilities (but not necessarily your authority). Empowerment should be a process whereby people develop their own responsibilities – with or without delegation happening in parallel. 

But this difference is perhaps pedantic compared to a second important one. Empowerment is not abnegation. Telling someone that ‘it’s your problem now’ is not empowering, it’s buckpassing. Empowering people – giving them the freedom to at least partly define their own approach, shape their own role, and offer their own contributions – is about giving them additional scope to operate within the organisational context, not about simply giving them enough rope.

Although resurgent in the last dark months of recession (although the ‘lucky to have a job’ approach might not provide long-term results – our opinion of our own luck is a shifting thing) ‘command and control’ models still deserve to be challenged. In doing so, however, it is not so much the benefits of empowerment that pose a problem as the method. Certainly, empowerment that is effectively ‘command and control plus passing tasks down the food chain’ is unlikely to bear significant fruit in the long-term. Today’s generation making tomorrow’s generation do their jobs their way doesn’t enable tomorrow’s generation to become fully-fledged; by the time the next generation are in a situation to empower those below them, time will have moved on and they’ll have been following yesterday’s approach rather too long. They will also have been working with heightened responsibility and diminished authority, which cannot be a healthy developmental diet.

But empowerment does need a framework within which to operate: the empowered are still employees, whose outputs and behaviours still take place within a framework. A parallel debate is taking place in the political arena, where ideas such as public sector workers’ collectives and parent-created schools are being floated. But, as David Miliband pointed out in his 2009 John Smith Memorial Lecture:

We understand that a successful society is created by people with the power and freedom to pursue their goals; and we know that an individual stands on the shoulders of society. The genius of modern societies is the way they release individual creativity; the danger is growing shared risks.

Like any other change in role, responsibility and behaviour, empowerment takes more than a snap decision, an announcement or a brief conversation to succeed. To improve performance, both individual and organisational, it needs more: the newly empowered individual needs encouragement, support and monitoring of their progress, and also possibly mentoring or coaching.

Having the freedom to do something new doesn’t automatically give us the abilities it will require, although the freedom is important. The empowerer must continue to engage – and be engaged with – the empowered, and recognise that ‘empowerment’ is not a single, one-off paradigm shift that is put in place and ‘changes the world’ (or at least the working worlds of those affected). To deliver its potential benefits, empowerment must – like performance management – be an on-going, continuous process that is monitored, supervised and evaluated. Just as moving beyond ‘command control’ requires self-awareness and an attitudinal shift in the behaviours and practices of leaders and managers, so does empowerment. It may move some responsibilities – and authorities – to others, but managing in an empowered organisation brings different responsibilities. As the recent Work Foundation report on outstanding leadership, Exceeding Expectations, highlighted:

While the report describes the importance outstanding leaders place on empowering others to deliver, there is no suggestion that they are simply giving up control to others or that this evolves somehow naturally. Rather, these outstanding leaders see themselves as facilitating and nurturing empowerment through a conscious philosophy and practice.

Empowerment is a key part of learning and development: the two are intertwined and if we are to grow, we need the space to do so. Constraining the space within which something can put down roots is an important skill if you’re tending bonsai, but human resource development should focus on maximising potential rather than producing an exquisite, but stunted workforce. If what is needed is people who think outside the box, continually putting them back in one is the wrong approach: the focus needs to be on opportunities rather than limits. We all need parameters to shape or scope our actions, but they should not be an immutable fortress.

Empowerment shares another important trait with learning and development: there is a common mistaken view of the ‘finishing line’. Just as learning doesn’t end at the end of a workshop’s final plenary session, empowerment doesn’t end with a conversation in which a member of staff is given new responsibilities, authority or scope to define and shape their own processes and practices. Empowerment should embrace the day-to-day challenges of the business as learning opportunities, supported by dialogue and feedback, so that the empowered develop not just skills and behaviours, but also the self-awareness and self-confidence they will need when ‘their turn comes’. As Anita Roddick once commented, “I think leaders should encourage the next generation not just to follow, but to overtake.” If it is to serve the longer term sustainability of the organisation as well as reinforcing the learning and development of its workforce, maybe we should see empowerment as the hand-signal that overtaking is ultimately to be encouraged?

Dr Anton Franckeiss is Practice Director at ASK

2 Responses

  1. Empowering, emprising and the importance of relationships


    <p>Very heartened by your reception for the article – and very interested by the points you make in the response you’ve offered. Your point on the difference between emprising and empowering raised a further thought in my mind: there’s an essential difference between, on one hand, having the freedom, volition and enthusiasm to launch and undertake your own endeavours and initiatives and, on the other hand, seeing not option open to you but a ‘DIY’ approach.</p>
    <p>Many people in many organisations will find themselves in situations where they would like to undertake more or do things differently, but also where achieving these ambitions will be a matter of unsupported personal development – even where they will be for the benefit of colleagues, the organisation as a whole or its customers. Depending on the prevailing culture, or the attitudes of close colleagues – and line managers/supervisors in particular – their ambitions may be seen as irrelevant or inappropriate, or even as ‘subversive’. Without channels for calm, rational dialogue, a smooth outcome is unlikely. One likely outcome is that the employer with ambitions and ideas will leave the organisation, frustrated by the lack of opportunity to progress either their ideas or their own development.</p>
    <p>To my own thinking, this underlines the importance of effective working relationships. Where the organisational culture supports or encourages open, exploratory dialogue, ideas (and frustrations) can be explored. Some ideas may not be taken up as the organisation can see no way of aligning them with its broader objectives: while the advocate of an idea will always see its merits, some potential developments may be possible rather than actively desirable. A working relationship that allows this difference to be explored may serve not only to retain those capable of thinking creatively, but also to help them to bring their creativity into play in more constructive ways – win:win with a site order of innovation, rather than a sudden need to recruit after a period of fractious working and declining productivity and engagement.</p>
    <p>The emprise/empower debate reminds me in some ways of the discussion about the ‘Big Society’ idea that has been raised during the election campaign, and to which the range of response has been interesting. On one hand, there is an intention to urge people to become engaged in aspects of life that directly affect them and to have a greater say in it. On the other, there is concern about the practicalities of implementation and about how the self-emprising may – through their stronger volition – disenfranchise others. At present – to extend the analogy – public services are equally accountable to all of us: give or take a non-proportional electoral system, we can all vote in our local council elections. When ‘handed back to us’, we are – by comparison – implicitly coerced into active engagement if our voice is to be heard: while many of these criticisms have been made by witty Radio 4 panellists, the concern that public services could be in the hands of unelected ‘local busy-bodies’ rather than accountable local authorities is actually a good point. To travel back along the axis of the analogy to the workplace, both the self-emprising and the empowered share a layer of management, part of the responsibility is – one would hope – to seek to equally engage and motivate everyone, and to seek to provide roughly equal opportunities for everyone to find their voice and to contribute. Engagement and empowerment in the abstract are noble ideas, but the method, means and channels of their implementation are critically important to the actual outcome.</p>
    <p>I was also struck by your use of the word ‘autonomous’, by the way. Like many things, I see this as something that needs to be viewed by degrees. There comes a point at which freedom of scope, voice and action within an organisational context enters ‘loose cannon’ territory – a similar point to the one above. If empowerment is one responsibility of ‘good management and leadership’, so is coherence – and the striking of a balance between them. Leaders and managers should take pride in their ability – once they have developed it, of course – to inspire and give opportunity for their staff and their teams to achieve their maximum potential, but that enhanced potential also needs to deployed to the benefit of achieving (or even extending) the objectives and aims of the organisation.</p>
    <p>I was additionally struck by your endorsement of coaching – which I also see as an endorsement of the importance of both relationships and dialogue – in this context, particularly in terms of (to quote you) “enquiring support and feedback”. We are eternally conscious of the invaluable role of on-going support and feedback in ensuring the transfer and application of learning, and would see support and feedback as key skills for any line manager to develop. Whether the learning, exploration of new ideas and behaviours are initiated through learning and development interventions, through empowerment and engagement initiatives, or by members of staff emprising themselves, without that support and feedback the potential harvest – for the both the organisation and the individual – can only be smaller.</p>
  2. Empowerment

    What an excellent article, Anton. (which means that I agree with your insights and feel prompted to build on them, please!)

    Empowerment deals with the concept of power itself. The learning of the greatest entrepreneurial, political and military leaders is, as Mary Follett observed, that the only form of sustainable power is power-with and power-through, not power-over. Power, meaning the ability to control and influence does not relate to strength or force, as anyone with a mother or a baby knows well. Power, developed and used wisely is, like knowledge, inifinitely extendable. When I empower another with my knowledge and authority, I do not lose any power, knowledge or authority myself, but increase both of our power together. 

    People are empowered by education, example, autonomy, feedback and constant practice to develop their skills and awareness. A wise leader constantly encourages all of these things. Empowerment cannot come from an academic course alone. Indeed, people may be confused, disempowered and demotivated by being taught grand ideals on a programme, only to have that learning scorned or traduced by their line bosses afterwards – better that they did not get sent on the course at all, if line managers do not continually support the learning, even, especially when the going gets tough.

    Coaching is the most effective way to develop empowerment throughout an organisation. It engages the whole mind and energy to apply learning in practice and prompts people to expand their repertoire of responses to the greater awareness that they have developed with the coach’s enquiring support and feedback.

    As well as developing personal capabilities and organisational effectiveness, empowering people keeps them engaged with the organisation, which pays back greatly when competitors seek to attract the talent and power that you have developed and your people choose to stay with you because of the power and confidence that you give them.

    I have one concern or caveat though, or maybe another source of hope. In some ways empowerment implies dependency. The most effective and autonomous people empower themselves, by a DIY version of the same methods described above. It interests me to wonder where, when and how some people have learned to do that.

    In my ancient OED there is a word ’emprise’ next to the word ’empower’. An emprise is an undertaking of valour or nobility taken on one’s own initiative. I feel an emprisement culture could be even more invigorating than an empowerment culture. As Annie Lennox sings it, "Sisters are doing it for themselves."

    Thanks again, Anton.      

    — Jonathan Wilson


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