Giving empowerment doesn’t work – and here’s why

empowerAPWhen we started andpartnership over twelve years ago, we wanted to create a different business, where people enjoyed coming to work, felt valued, empowered and had fun.

We believed if we couldn’t create this for ourselves, how were we qualified to advise others how to change their cultures?

As we launch our updated online presence, I thought I would reflect on our journey so far, what I have learnt about human behaviour, empowerment, and what this means for the work we do with our clients.

Lesson #1 – Stepping up

The first thing I have learnt is that the classic desire to achieve empowerment is flawed.

The definition of empowerment is ‘to give power to or to authorise’. But this makes a massive assumption; that the person receiving the power is ready to receive it and wants it!

Early on, as we tried to empower our team, it became apparent that the focus needed to be on the receiver not the giver.

This approach to empowerment has gone on to inform much of our leadership work and is what makes our approach different.

We moved from focussing on trying to wrestle control from reluctant leaders, to working with the team members on stepping up into the leadership space, taking more control and asking for forgiveness not permission.

The work with the leader is then around how to create an environment where this style flourishes.

Lesson #2 – Tablegate!

The second – and huge – lesson is around the importance of being really clear about the ‘givens’ when a team takes responsibility for proposing and implementing a task.

If you don’t, the opposite feeling to the one sought can be created. A tiny example of this was when we were refurbishing our offices and replacing office furniture. We gave this to the team to propose; they were the people most impacted and we wanted them to feel happy with whatever was implemented. My assumption was that they would know what the cost constraints were and the important things to us about office and meeting room layouts.

However, the team were new and my assumptions led to them wasting time proposing an initial solution that didn’t fit budgetary constraints, and, in what has been labelled humorously ‘tablegate’ by the team, my absolute given that we weren’t going to sit around a long, thin table when having our meetings!

Luckily, the team saw the funny side and we worked it out. But being absolutely clear about the parameters and scope for empowering others is essential.

Lesson #3 – Exciting Futures

The final lesson is about levels of ownership.

People come into work for a variety of reasons (which is absolutely fine) and some people just want an easy life, and want you to make the decisions for them. Others see ownership and empowerment as a chance to push their own agendas and step away from the company’s mission or strategy. To minimise this you need to help people to understand and be excited about the Future you are trying to create, how this fits with the Future they care about and help them to take appropriate levels of ownership for their part of the journey.

My learning is that if people don’t want this after exploring these then they may be in the wrong job – you can persevere for too long hoping to change someone’s core personality or work ethic.

If someone fundamentally seeks a ‘quiet life’, they will resist empowerment with all their energy!

If this sounds like a dark assessment of human nature, it isn’t meant to be! The positive outcome is what people can achieve when they do want to take ownership and give it their all – many people have surprised themselves (and me) with what they can achieve.

The key leadership role is creating an engaging environment where making mistakes is OK (as long as they are learnt from and not repeated!) and where they feel supported and challenged.

In order to do this, leaders need to have a Playing to Win mindset, engaging people in the art of the possible and encouraging them to take risks rather than keep their head down and do the minimum required.

When this happens, anything is possible!

If you need people to take more ownership in your team/organisation, we would be happy to talk to you about our learning about empowerment, how we have achieved this in many organisations and how we could help you and your team to be at your best more of the time.

Contact David on 07710 003029 david@andpartnership.com