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People Don't Need to Be Empowered (They Want This Instead).

People are not powerless. They don’t need empowerment from their leaders.

By Gustavo Razzetti

January 12, 2021

Your employees are already powerful.

I hate the word “empowerment.”

When dealing with disengagement or lack of accountability, most managers usually think, "We need to empower our people," as if it were some kind of silver bullet. But, if empowerment is so magical, why is employee disengagement on the rise?

For starters, empowerment is an intrinsic state of being; it's not something you can provide.

People usually start a new job full of energy, feeling both engaged and empowered. However, organizations start flooding them with rules, controls, and processes that do anything but inspire people.

Fearful workplace cultures strip power and energy away from employees with their command-and-control approach – even from top-performers.

People are not powerless — they don't need to be empowered. They need a conducive culture in which to do their best work.

The problem with empowering people

“The notion of empowerment presumes that the organization has the power and benevolently ladles some of it into the waiting bowls of grateful employees. That’s just a slightly more civilized form of control.”— Daniel Pink

“Empowerment” means “giving power to someone;” to make them stronger and more confident.

This notion creates an unequal relationship based on the assumption that managers possess the power to make subordinates feel more confident. I don't buy into the idea that leaders are powerful and the rest are powerless.

Empowerment also implies benevolence — managers are kind and generous enough to 'share' their power.

The word "empowerment" is a trap. It's a beautified way of saying "delegation," boosting the manager's ego.

People don't need permission to do great work, but a fearless culture that's risk-tolerant, promotes courageous conversations, and invites people to experiment. Employees don't need their bosses to make things easier for them either. They already have the power they need – just give them space.

As Patty McCord, the author of Powerful, said, "The reason we have to empower people is because we took that power away from them."

Power is an illusion that resides wherever we want it to. The idea of empowerment presumes that bosses own the power and that it's something they can give (or not) rather than something that resides within each person.

Empowering people is a deceptive idea. It makes managers feel good about their intentions while failing to remove the necessary barriers for people to thrive. Without distributed authority, how can you expect your team members to make decisions?

Forget Empowerment. Encourage Autonomy Instead.

The antidote to disengagement and lack of accountability is autonomy. Unlike power, autonomy provides people with a sense of collective ownership, inviting them to help the organization grow rather than play politics.

Autonomy is the freedom to act and to make our own choices. Empowerment is the granting of political, social, or economic power.

Empowerment operates on the idea of external motivation; bosses (wrongly) believe they must motivate their teams. Autonomy, on the other hand, focuses on the notion of self-motivation. The most effective and powerful motivation is intrinsic, not external.  

Our brains are wired to self-direct, as Daniel Pink explains in Drive. Human beings resist being told what to do – we want to be in control. Pink dubbed intrinsic motivation as "Motivation 3.0." It encompasses three elements: a clear purpose, mastery, and, of course, autonomy.

Studies show that autonomy gives workers more satisfaction in their jobs and boosts overall productivity. It's no surprise, then, that it also increases accountability and engagement.

Giving people more control over their tasks can make your organization more attractive. One study found that people are two and a half times more likely to take a job that gives them more autonomy than one that gives them more influence.

Promoting autonomy is much more useful than empowering people. However, freedom alone is not enough. People also need authority.

Decision-Making: Enable Autonomy & Authority

“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” — Grace Hopper

Autonomy is derived from authority, but it doesn't work the other way around. Advising organizations in building agile and innovative cultures, I observe this way too often: many managers have formal authority, but lack the autonomy to make decisions.

Distributed authority and autonomy are crucial to make organizations more agile. However, that ability should be provided at the culture level, not depending on a particular manager. Rules and decision-making rights – and methods – should be clearly specified when mapping the company culture.

Autonomy leverages collective intelligence by encouraging everyone to bring their best ideas (and selves) to work. When people feel in charge, they are more open to collaborating.

As Alden Mills explains on Unstoppable Teams, we are all different but share three things:

•The will to survive danger

•The ego-driven desire for personal gain

• A soul-driven willingness to be part of something greater than ourselves

Fearful cultures promote a divide-and-conquer leadership style, where the number one priority is survival. Fearless cultures, on the other hand, lead by uniting and building. When teams feel safe, they can focus on the greater good rather than watching their backs.

As Mills wrote, “To lead is to let go. People want to understand a vision, a ‘why’ that inspires them, and they want to be a part of the solution that is greater than themselves.”

How to Distribute Decision-Making Rights

People don't need empowerment, nor delegation. They need clear rules regarding who makes which type of decisions, how, and when.

There are seven essential methods to make decisions: Autocratic, Delegation, Democratic, Consent, Avoidance, Consultative, and Consensus.

Start by deciding how your team will make decisions. Read this post to help you choose the right decision-making method for your team.

An effective rule of thumb is that decision-making rights should lie with those closest to the information or issue, and/ or with the problem owner rather than the source of power. Give employees explicit authority to make decisions based on their roles, accountabilities, and expertise.

For example, in the Netflix culture map, it's stated that managers should provide context, not control. Employees are encouraged to make decisions and consult their bosses only when they need context. Regardless of their involvement, managers can't make decisions or tell people what to do.

Define how context can change decision-making. At Airbnb, employees have full authority to make any decision in regular times. However, during a crisis, the CEO takes full control and plays a more active role.

Decision-making can vary depending on the nature of the issue.

For regular tensions, Zappos uses consent (not consensus) to address problems and make decisions. However, when it comes to customer service, each customer representative has full autonomy to make any decision to "wow the client." The belief is that the person closest to the customer is better informed to make the right call.

Distributing authority is not a binary thing, however. There are various shades of gray between a top-down organization and a decentralized one.

There's no such thing as a perfect decision-making method – each has pros and cons. However, regardless of if you use consent, an advisory process, or a democratic approach, clarity and distributed authority are vital. Define and communicate your decision-making culture.

"To enable lower organizational levels to make decisions, we need to give them authority, information, and practice. Without practice and the freedom to fail upon occasion, they will not take control of these decisions." — Don Reinertsen

Autonomy is an essential human motivation that your organization must promote. High-performing teams benefit from psychological safety, distributed authority, and transparency. Be patient, though; it takes time to see results. As Reinertsen points out, when changing the rules of the game, people need time to practice and learn.

Leaders don't have all the answers. Solving complex, ambiguous problems requires diversity of thought. Build a culture that encourages participation, open debate, and autonomy.

Stop trying to empower your employees; people resent being controlled. Try autonomy instead. Create a culture of trust: establish clear rules, hire the right people, and let them do their jobs.

What do you think?

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