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