Steven's Blog

Authority Isn’t Empowerment

Empowerment is like breathing. We all recognize its need but we’re rarely aware of it until something is wrong. Passivity in business is the most common symptom of lack of empowerment.

I define empowerment is the ability to affect business outcomes through one’s work. Managers often think that empowerment is a matter of giving people individual decision-making authority, but authority alone is not enough.

Real empowerment requires three essential elements, only one of which is authority. Click To Tweet
  1. Visibility of the business impact, resulting from one’s own work. Even if a person has an impact on a business outcome, if he or she cannot see that impact, it is as if did not happen at all;
  2. Resources, whether time, money, other people, know-how, technology and equipment; and finally,
  3. Authority over those resources and the will to wield it. I emphasize the last part because a manager who is unwilling to wield authority for whatever reason is the same as a manager with no authority at all, and perhaps worse.

So, for example, the CEO of a European fashion brand company empowers his senior managers to be “CEOs over their own parts of the business,” as he puts it. They have wide latitude in decision-making in using their own budget in achieving strategic results, and they have clear visibility through to those results. Another company’s customer service agents working at a call center have independent authority to resolve any customer complaint at their discretion up to a certain budget using agreed guidelines. Rapid resolution leads to happy customers and has reduced escalations by an order of magnitude. One of my Japanese client companies provides no fixed desk for sales staff, only shared hot desks. A salesperson may use his or her time however he or she wants in pursuing objectives. Presence in the office is required only for certain meetings.

When even one element of empowerment is missing, the result is enweakenment. I invented the word enweakenment because I believe it better communicates the damage done to organizational capability, as opposed to “disempowerment” which sounds too much like a reduction in authority.

For example, in another one of my client companies, sales teams had the authority to plan marketing activities and visibility through to results. However, marketing resources were concentrated in the hands of a marketing department, where people had their own ideas, that rarely coincided with those of the sales teams. Without resources, sales teams were not empowered. They were in fact weakened vis-a-vis their customers.

While the marketing people had the resources and authority over how to use them, they had little visibility to business outcomes. Sure, they would get the final sales numbers and consumer survey results, however, few marketing managers ever talked with customers directly to understand their needs and desires, or heard direct feedback from customers about the results of marketing activities. In fact, negative feedback was almost all the salespeople heard. If sales did not pan out, it was the fault of salespeople in the view of most of the marketing people, not their own. Without visibility to business outcomes, people have difficulty using authority and resources effectively, if they use them at all.

There are three distinct mentalities of enweakenment depending on which element of empowerment is missing, poverty mentality, silo mentality, and helplessness mentality, each of which leads to passivity in the business. Have a look at the diagram below.

  1. Authority and Visibility without Resources results in a poverty mentality. People can see the results on the business and have the authority to make a difference, but insufficient resources to do so, like the sales team above with the “authority” to plan marketing activities. People stop bothering even coming up with or otherwise reject out of hand ideas that might require even minimal investment in the business.
  2. Authority and Resources without Visibility results in a silo mentality. Expressions common to a silo mentality are ones like, “That’s the problem of the sales department, not my problem.” Silo mentality is common in back-office functions where staff and managers have little or no direct contact with customers or visibility to customer outcomes, like in the example of the marketing department above.
  3. Visibility and Resources with without Authority results in a helplessness mentality. People become frustrated and cynical in that they can see clearly what needs to be done and the availability of resources to make things right, but they have no authority over resources to do what is needed. Common expressions are ones like, “Don’t ask me. I just work here!”

Only number four in the middle of the diagram results in empowerment.

So, do you want to empower people your business? Think beyond authority. Ensure adequate resources whether that means time, money, people, equipment, or something else, and enable visibility through to results—particularly for people in back-office support functions. You will find that once you have truly empowered your people, they will empower you in return.


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