Empowerment Isn’t as Easy as It Seems

June 6th, 2012 | 64 Comments

The director was buried in work. His staff was chomping at the bit for more responsibility. And the work wasn’t being turned around fast enough.

Most people  recognize the benefits of an empowered organization; that is, faster decision-making by the people closest to the issue, more satisfying customer experiences, the wisdom gained by employees making and learning from their own decisions, and, of course more motivated and engaged employees.  Leaders and team members recognize the benefits of empowerment and want more of it, but find it elusive. Why?

 To answer this question, let’s begin with a definition of empowerment. Google defines it as the “delegation of responsibility, accountability and authority necessary to succeed at one’s work”*. This means that there are at least two parties involved in the empowerment process, the leader and the staff member. Both need to play in order for empowerment to work. The first post in this two part series describes the leader’s challenges and empowerment strategies. The second post will approach it from the staff member’s perspective. *(Empowerment and delegation are related. Delegation is the act giving someone the responsibility for performing a task. Empowerment is the attitude in which people feel able and expected to perform tasks or make decisions on their own, without being asked or asking permission.)

 A leader faces several challenges in empowering people. The first is motivational. The leader needs to have good reason in order to let go of key tasks and decisions. They need to see some desirable outcome from their investment in empowerment. For some, their motivation comes from a wish to create a more satisfying and fulfilling work environment. For others, it is the promise of the improved customer satisfaction that comes from employees making decisions on the front line, without the delay of needing to check with their supervisor. For others, it is the wish to help their staff learn and grow by performing more advanced tasks and making more decisions on their own. There probably several more motivations, but these are the ones that I have encountered most often in my coaching practice.

 Staff readiness is another challenge. The empowered staff member needs to have the skill, knowledge, and judgment that will enable them to make a good decision. To gain this, the leader often needs to invest in training, coaching and communicating that will prepare the staff member to make informed decisions.

 Even with these investments there is still a risk that the employee will not make the same kind of decision that the leader would make. If the decision is simply different, and not damaging, then the leader needs to face their own egotism and desire for control, and learn to accept decisions that are different from their own.

 Recognizing one’s need for control can be difficult, as it is not considered an attractive trait. Leaders can ask themselves, “Do I want to hold onto this to make sure it is done my way?” Similarly, wanting to be right is a strong impulse, and being right is pleasurable experience for all of us. Letting someone else be right takes a level of self-awareness and generosity of spirit.  To counter these forces, the leader can learn to share the pleasure of being right and get satisfaction from the staff member’s rightness.

Another barrier is risk. If the staff member’s decision turns out to be poor, one with negative consequences, a leader might shy away from letting that happen again. Rather than retreating from empowerment, the leader could view the situation as a powerful, though possibly costly developmental opportunity for the employee. The leader can help them debrief the scenario, talking them through an examination of their thought process and actions, and identifying alternatives for future incidents. Some may find it hard to resist the temptation to blame. Instead, they can focus on this type of reflective learning for a better decision next time.

A fifth barrier to empowerment can be the leader’s own love for the work itself. Many leaders truly enjoy the work of their department. They have invested years, even decades in learning and mastering it. They may have been promoted into leadership because they were the best and most motivated practitioner. Now they are being asked to back away from the work and let others do it.  Leaving something they love can feel like a genuine loss. Some leaders can counter these feelings by learning to shift their sense of reward from doing to leading. They can learn the joy of hiring, developing, coaching and delegating to people; then watching their team perform.

All of these empowerment solutions require level of self awareness and self discipline. These can be learned with effort, attention and coaching. In their learning process, leaders become conscious of the potential benefits of empowerment. They stay aware of their own impulses to exert control and wanting it done their own way. Along with this awareness they gradually develop skill and comfort with delegating, coaching and following up so, their team becomes increasingly capable of expanded responsibility.




64 Responses to “Empowerment Isn’t as Easy as It Seems”

  1. Ken Jones wrote:

    Proper use of empowerment and delegation have been key to the success (or failure) of every organization I’ve worked with. Too often leaders have irrational fears of loosing control to subordinates. But on the flip side, being overly generous to rising stars can have disasteous consequences if not handled carefully.

  2. Anne Houle wrote:

    Dan makes excellent points regarding the real reasons why managers can’t and won’t empower their employees. I see it happen over and over again. Managers are the first to say they want their employees to succeed and even tell them that directly, and will delegate those new, challenging assignments. But the rubber meets the road when the situation starts to play out and managers’ unconsious drives start to take over. Everyone starts reacting and the frustration builds for both parties. And then multiply these situations over and over in time and then cap it all of with a performance review at the end of the year(!)I like Dan’s comments about self-awareness and generosity of spirit for the manager. I believe that the same holds true for the staff member.

  3. Janet Wise wrote:

    Dan – You are, as usual, on point with your observations and the biggest take a way from this blogarticle is capture in one line: …”This means that there are at least two parties involved in the empowerment process, the leader and the staff member” – when all individuals, within the org context, come to realize that all stakeholers have a role to play – I belive it is then they will be ready to exam their own beliefs and make the shift. Thank you .

  4. Radhia wrote:

    I agree with Ken.I’d add that transparent performance tools will either encourage the executive to empower or not specific employees.

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