Empowerment is not for Sissies

A while ago I published an article on whether one could empower your employees.  The point I made was that it was essential to first create an environment within which your employees would feel it safe to empower themselves.  Thereafter you could help them grow and develop, expose them to management development courses, as well as to a continuous programme of mentoring and coaching.

One of the readers sent in the extract below to show the predicament he is facing in the country he is trying to grow a company.


I had noticed something about our people that frustrated me at our factory in a rural area of an African developing economy. Staff seemed often to lack the initiative and keenness to do what they needed to do to get things done well. Things would be done half-heartedly, or not at all. An example. We produce food so neatness and cleanliness of the premises are important – if your place is dirty, chances are your food is unhygienic. We put up dustbins everywhere and we beg our people to use them, but I still walk about daily and pick up papers and rubbish lying about. Another example. We pile up the peels from our raw materials into a heap to produce organic fertilizer for our farmers. Foreign, non-organic materials interrupt the organic process and I regularly find bits of plastic in these heaps despite frequent talks and lectures about the organic process – including sticking hands into the pile to feel the 70 degree plus heat from the decomposition process.

Our people are not stupid. They are not lazy. They are well motivated and keen. What then is the problem that causes them to have blind spots on certain issues? It was almost as if they did not care.

A thought came to me in our of our tutoring sessions. I have a theory that we have an empowerment disconnect that comes from the society that they move about in that causes them to have a tight limit on what they care about.

Consider this. They live in a country with only 10% electricity availability, with bad to terrible roads, with almost non-existent public health where children die daily from preventable causes, with a schooling system that is falling apart where barely literate students graduate, where any minor government official can make your life a living hell if by chance they find you committing even a minor and insignificant infraction, and where politicians and government officials steal themselves rich while leaving millions in utter poverty.

What can the individual do to change any of these terrible things? Pretty much nothing. You don’t matter. What you do or don’t do does not change anything.  The country tells you that you are nothing.

Is there any greater definition of dis-empowerment?

Now you move from this environment through our factory gates into a place where you are told “you matter”. You are told you are empowered. You are told what you do matters. For most individuals, this is moving from total darkness into bright light – moving from sub zero temperature to desert heat.

Is it not just possible that some people struggle with adjusting to the step from the dis-empowering society into the empowered company premises?

Do I have any statistics to prove this?  No.  Any research to back up my theory? No. But it rings true and I see it with my eyes every day.

Now the million dollar question. How do I fix this? Clearly, more work needs to be done to develop an antidote but identifying the problem is half the solution.

If you are dealing with people who do not always perform, consider the society that produces them. If that society empowers people, you are ahead. If that society dis-empowers people, you have an extra challenge.

But is that not part of the challenge – to leave things (including people) better than we found them?

End of extract.

I first need to state that to come up with the answer sitting in a country thousands of miles away would be arrogant and stupid.  And hopefully I am neither.  In order to understand some of what the author describes above, we need to get an idea of the role of national culture. In this regard, Geert Hofstede developed a national culture index in which he scored a large number of countries worldwide on 5 dimensions.  I am going to contrast the 2 largest economies on Africa so as to give the reader a feel for the differences.  This information was obtained from Hofstede’s website at http://www.geert-hofstede.com/.

•             Power Distance refers to the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power to be distributed unequally.  The score for West Africa is over 70, while the score for SA is 40.  There is therefore an acceptance in West Africa for the inequalities in the environment while SA is less tolerant of the same inequalities.

•             Individualism/Collectivism refers to the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups.  On the individualist side, the ties between individuals are loose and everyone is expected to look after themselves, and their immediate family.  On the collectivist side, people are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups.  West Africa scores low on individualism (about 15), while SA scores a 60, a large difference.

•             Masculinity/Femininity refers to the distribution of roles between the two dimensions.  Hofstede found that women’s values differ less among societies than men’s values.  Also, it was found that men’s values from one country differed from being very assertive and competitive (masculine) and maximally different from women’s values on the one side, to being modest and caring (feminine) and similar to women’s values on the other.  The women in feminine countries have similar modest, caring values as the men; in the masculine countries they are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as much as the men, so that these countries show a gap between men’s values and women’s values.  On a rating of 100, West Africa scores 40 while SA scores 60.  West Africa would therefore tend to be more feminine than SA in their approach to values.  This should indicate that West Africa should be more caring than SA, which is apparently not the case. This links closely to the extract above.

•             Uncertainty avoidance deals with society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.  Cultures avoiding uncertainty try to minimize the possibility of such situations by strict rules and regulations and by a belief in an absolute truth. People in uncertainty avoiding countries are more emotional and motivated by inner nervous energy.  Uncertainty accepting cultures are more tolerant of opinions that differ from theirs.  They try to have as few rules as possible, and the cultures are more phlegmatic and contemplative, and are not expected by their environment to express emotions.  West Africa scores a 50, indicating no preference for either certainty or uncertainty, while SA scores a 45.  SA would therefore be more comfortable with uncertainty than West Africa.

•             Long-term/Short-term Orientation.  Values associated with a long-term orientation are thrift and perseverance, while values associated with a short-term orientation are respect for tradition, fulfilling social obligations, and protecting one’s ‘face’.  West Africa scores about 10 on this dimension, which indicates a preference for a short-term orientation.  They live on a day to day basis, which is probably indicative of a consumption culture.  Hofstede does not have a score for SA on this dimension.

Forget about the fact that that West Africa is not a homogenous group. Two of the 3 countries forming West Africa are Ghana and Nigeria and there is no way that these 2 countries can be seen as a unit as far as national culture is concerned.  But it does illustrate a difference in national cultures when contrasted with SA.  I could have used any 2 countries as examples for that matter.

We also need to see the above explanations as a neutral phenomenon.  Obviously the nature of society as far as governance and ethics are concerned also plays a strong role as to what is acceptable and what is not.  This means that while the above elements are seen as neither good nor bad, they would have a “gold” side as well as a “shadow” side.  This means that “something which just is,” could combine with other factors to produce a very negative environment.  For this we need to understand the soul or psyche of the nation.  There could be aspects in the unconscious of the society at large which could combine with the natural national culture issues to collectively produce a situation which is very unhealthy.

I would be amiss if I were not to explain the “Dirty Harry” principle.  You all know the movies with Clint Eastwood as the cop with the “most powerful handgun in the world.” He was beating up a crook to get information.  At some point the crook threatened Dirty Harry that his friend would arrive soon and then Harry would be sorry.  Lo and behold, the friend did arrive.  He made the mistake to gun for his gun. Harry took out his .45 Magnum and shot the friend. While this guy was lying in the corner bleeding all over the carpet, Dirty Harry looked at the crook and asked, “If he’s so farkin good, why’s he so farkin dead?”

Relevance?  If our people are so good, and our training is so good, why do our people still not perform to the expectations we have?  Maybe they are not as good as we tend to think. Maybe our programmes are not as good as we tend to think. Always an option to consider, but not necessarily relevant in the case above.

Lastly, a few thoughts on growing and developing people.  Businesses tend to think that providing knowledge will lead to a change in behaviour.  because they know better, the should act better!  They base their decision to send employees to business schools on this assumption.  They base their in-house training programmes on this assumption.  The reality is that this assumption is not valid. Employees first need to change their thinking patterns based on the knowledge they were exposed to. They then need to become different people, they need to change as people.  Then only will we see a sustainable change in behaviour.  There is no direct link between the transfer of knowledge and a change in behaviour.  It unfortunately takes a more laborious route, which is time consuming and tiring.

There are therefore a few realities I think we need to bear in mind.

The first reality is that one tends to interpret the environment with an ethos directed by your own worldview.  Given this ethos, you see what your ethos allows you to see.  Relevance?  Bear in mind that what you see and what your employees see are not necessarily the same thing.  National cultures have a strong impact on your ethos.  When managers operate in foreign countries, they need to be careful to not project their worldviews onto the employees from the host country.  Your interventions need to keep this reality in mind.

The second reality is that we need to be sensitive towards the shadow elements of a culture and/or environment.  They can and do combine with the national culture, organizational culture, and even personal values to deliver a situation that could be disastrous for the larger system. This is also hinted at by the second last point the author of the extract makes.

The third reality is that our people and the quality of our interventions might not be as good as we think they are.  Getting the right people on board in the right positions take wisdom and time.  It takes a willingness to be honest with ourselves and our people. It takes people processes that will measure what we indeed do need to measure.  Our performance management policies need to be in place and of a nature that will enhance and reward the right kind of behaviour.

The fourth reality is that the nature of our mentoring and coaching processes, as well as the nature of our training interventions, need to be designed from a perspective that understands the dynamics described above. Before we see any meaningful change at the behavioural level, we first need to change the thinking and being dimensions of the people we are working with. We also need to understand this will take time and effort!

When we keep this in mind, the behaviour of the people working for our author becomes more understandable.  The behaviour required from our leaders become more understandable.  Patience and perseverance become important virtues.  There is no easy way.  And we do need to accept that the environment will influence our people and will influence the success of our people interventions.  You need to plan for it and deal with it.

To do otherwise is a recipe for disaster.

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