Empowerment: so hard to achieve

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Empowerment, as a concept, in organisations is one of the most promising, yet it seems to have had selective impact. Empowerment is based on the idea that people have the opportunity, resources (people, time, budget and materials), knowledge skills, and experience and authority, to undertake agreed work autonomously.

Further, those people who are empowered are motivated responsible and take ownership of their roles. It sounds relatively straight forward yet so many leaders and their people are challenged by it.

There is misunderstanding on the part of leaders and their people about what empowerment really is. On occasions we have had leaders share with us their belief that that empowerment is built around that old adage of “throwing people in the deep end”. This is abdication on the part of the leader, not empowerment. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the leader who selectively mandates what decisions/actions their people can take. This is an autocratic leader, not an empowering leader.

Team members, too, misunderstand empowerment believing that it means they have the freedom to do as they please to carry out the various parts of their role failing to understand that to be empowered means the price for autonomy is a willingness to share risk and to be held accountable for the outcomes and results produced.

For empowerment to have any chance of working it requires a fundamental shift in thinking around the type of culture needed. It is rare for empowerment to succeed in a hierarchical culture and therein lies the challenge for so many organisations; the willingness to abandon conventional practices that maintain hierarchies.

FROM Hierarchy TO Empowering
Leader driven planning Shared Vision, Purpose, Mission and Values
Command and Control Partnering
Individual focus Team focus
Reactive Responsive
Hierarchy Cross–functional
Pacesetter Coach
Participative management Collaboration
Do as you are told Own your role
Compliance Sound judgement

W. Alan Randolph; Re-thinking Empowerment

We have found if the move from a hierarchical culture occurs to an empowering culture too rapidly it will result in confused people because of the departure from what has been the norm for decades in the organisation. The movement to an empowered culture is a stepped process:

  • Begin with enabling people to understand why the change is necessary for them. Do not try to sell people on the change and the benefit to the organisation.
  • Move to enabling people to learn and build the skills required for them to be effectively empowered. The key here is not acquisition of new skills but rather time to apply and practice the newly acquired skills in a safe environment.
  • Move from rules and limits to boundaries. This may seem counter intuitive when we are trying to create autonomy. Rules/limits are confining and directive whereas boundaries allow people to act with freedom within the confines of the agreed boundaries. Boundaries also leave open the possibility of progressively expanding the boundaries as experience grows.
  • As individual competence grows, move towards developing and increasing team skills with particular emphasis in working collaboratively and building mutual accountability. Empowered teams are capable of so much more than empowered individuals.

The journey to an empowered culture is challenging as people wrestle with change and all the concerns it brings. Change is often accompanied by a sense of loss before gain along with concerns over failure frustration as people learn new ways of doing things and coming to grips with reallocation of resources.

Yet empowerment is real and for those companies who make the commitment it releases opportunities for people and their leaders to deliver outstanding personal, team and organisational outcomes.

Vivente Australia enables leaders and managers develop the bond between people and performance, creating a powerful advantage: the synergy between people, leadership, management, and culture, produces performance that allows your business to achieve its best.