Steven's Blog

A businessman pressing an Empowerment button on a transparent screen.

Empowerment That Counts

Empowering people can be motivating and serve as a boon to your business’s results, but only if you do it right. However, nothing engenders cynicism more than pro forma exercises in prima facie empowerment. Too frequently, I find ham-fisted attempts of managers at making people feel empowered, often at the behest of some kind of edict issued by HR managers who are oblivious to the damage they cause.

People talk about empowerment all the time, but I rarely hear anyone actually define what empowerment means. So here is my definition: empowerment is the ability to affect a business outcome through one’s individual work. Empowerment is not involved in a decision, nor is empowerment just the authority to decide. Empowerment must include an employee’s ability to make a business result happen. So when a frontline customer service employee who has the ability to resolve an exceptional issue with a customer using financial or other company resources on his or her independent authority, that’s empowerment. 

There is nothing more disempowering than to try to make an employee feel empowered through a patronizing charade when he or she is, in fact, not. Click To Tweet The head of a major sales division responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues was hoping to boost motivation of managers by empowering them in a strategy development workshop. Let them design the strategy and give them a sense of ownership, and motivation and proactivity should ensue—or at least so the theory goes.

However, he and the CEO had already decided much of the strategy. The head of sales was so afraid of possibly “disempowering” his managers that he intended to keep the strategic decisions already made from them during the workshop and lead through a choreographed exercise of strategy development to reach his pre-ordained conclusion. Do you really believe that no manager would be able to see through such a ruse?

Empowerment is a rheostat, not an on-off switch. Just because certain strategic decisions have been made prior to a strategy workshop does not mean that the managers have been disempowered. In most cases, parts of strategy are beyond the purview of most managers and employees in an organization—and rightly so! However, that does not mean that the managers cannot help achieve a business result through their own individual contribution.

Empowerment always has its limits and constraints, and don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise. In a strategy workshop, you empower your people by being explicit about where those constraints are and where they are not by pretending none exist at all. It is not necessary for all managers and staff to be enabled to create all business outcomes all the time to feel empowered. Empowerment to affect even some business outcomes when and where it counts will usually suffice. 

In all strategy development, there are the negotiable and the non-negotiable aspects. A CEO might decide to cut a product line of the business because it is no longer strategic. That is non-negotiable. However, how to cut it, when to cut it, how to help customers to make the transition should they need it, and how the salesforce implements the cut and talks with customers are, among other issues, all up for discussion. It is in deciding the means of execution where leaders rely on managers and staff for help, as they are the closest to operations and to customers.

You empower your people by asking for their help where you need it to achieve a business outcome, and there is nothing more empowering than asking for help. There is nothing that creates a feeling of empowerment more than helping someone else.

Does this mean that empowerment is the key to motivating employees and improving business results? No, not at all. It would be disingenuous of me to tell you otherwise.

You cannot empower people. People must empower themselves. All you can do is clear the way, but it is up to an employee whether or not to use his or her empowerment.

And what do you do with the employees who, no matter what you say or do, refuse to use their empowerment? Use your own empowerment, and replace them with someone who will.

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