I think the buzzword phenomenon has finally backfired. Perhaps saying “finally” backfired is letting it off the hook too easily.
The latest trends in leadership actually fail all the time, but not necessarily because they are wrong. Often times I suspect that it is because the managers who read these “Next Big Thing” articles on HBR, Forbes or Inc. don’t fully understand the concepts but decide to implement them anyway.
In a world that is served up regularly with “The Next Big Thing,” I have recently seen an uptick in the calling for empowering employees; the (not so) new rage in today’s world of “Servant” leadership gurus.
I’m a fan of servant leadership. You will see ideas that correlate with this all over this site.
The desire to allow your employees the freedom to make decisions and become a part of the process is admirable AND worth pursuing.
In theory the empowered employee is created in an environment where leadership provides a clear organizational road map and couples this vision with guidelines to the company’s expectations of them. It is then that the highly competent employee can feel greater flexibility to contribute more and ask for permission less. Ultimately allowing them to do more of what they are capable of doing.
So when you really boil it down, empowering your employees is a brilliant way to induce engagement and bring out the best from everyone throughout the organization.
The problem isn’t the idea of empowerment. Like so many other great leadership and business ideas, the problem is in the execution.
I’m pretty sure this is how empowerment (and other business advice) is rolled out in far too many organizations…
A manager surfs over to Harvard Business Review and they read an article about empowerment, or they attend a conference where a great motivational speaker says “You have to empower your team to drive great results.”
With a microphone in hand and a great lighting technician it is at this point that the speaker has convinced the manager that they hear angels singing and the answers to all of their problems have been delivered. (Angels sold separately)
On Monday when they head back to the office, they sit in their office and they transform into “The Empowerer” (Say it with a Schwarzenager accent for full effect) With this new training they start talking up and down the ladder about empowering the team and getting everyone involved. A commitment to turn over a new leaf and to quit micro-managing things.
Yet, nothing is discussed as to how prepared the employees are for this transition. How important the elements such as expectation setting, vision sharing, and highly engaged leadership truly is to an empowered environment. No plan for how the employees will really understand what they are empowered to decide, but just that they are empowered. Not even some internal analysis to determine whether the current team is ready or capable to take on the additional responsibility.
Really just a line of well intended business book jargon that is missing any real execution.
The first employee that comes into their office and asks a routine question, the manager with their new found “EmPOWERment Trip” in life says…
“What do you think you should do?”
The employee that is used to being given direction is stunned, lost and probably confused. Staring back like a deer into headlights.
Then one of three things happen.
- The employee proceeds to do what they think they should and they mess it up
- The employee proceeds to do what they think and they happen to get it right
- The employee ends up reminding you that they asked you because they didn’t know
If they do 2 then everyone wins for now (Because there is a good chance they got lucky).
If they do 1 or 3 then you are going to be frustrated, disenchanted and annoyed with your employee. Possibly with the entire idea of empowerment because you have now grown convinced it doesn’t work.
Of course one incident, regardless of the answer, isn’t going to validate anything. However, hopefully you get the gist.
Bottom line here is empowering the team is a strategy that must be incorporated with a number of other consistent leadership activities. Most importantly messaging and expectation setting. Then to be followed up with feedback and guidance so the empowered employee becomes better.
What I can tell you for sure is that telling your employee to essentially figure it out themselves is NOT empowerment. Nor is just throwing their questions back at them.
The employee that is thrown into the fire will rarely come out alive let alone unscathed. Thus the reason why leadership exists.
To empower without those key leadership activities becomes mere isolation which is counter to the purpose of a leader.
So yes, empower away. Give the employees the opportunity to thrive. But set them up to win.
Words are only words until they are given meaning. The leader is who makes that possible. So there….now YOU are empowered to empower.