People Cannot be Empowered!

In a previous posting, “Can your people act independently?”, I spoke about the need to appoint the right kind of people and to develop their ability to act in the absence of authority. In this posting I would like to take the concept a bit further and address the extremely important issue of empowerment.

I have come to the conclusion that people cannot be empowered. That is, I cannot empower another person. I frequently hear and read that people were empowered by their managers. My point of view? Hogwash! It cannot be done. Does this contradict what I had said about developing your people in the mentioned posting? Not at all. Please hear me out.

Way back, I told one of my managers that she could forthwith make certain decisions. I gave her the authority to make the decisions herself. As it worked out, I still had to make the final decisions. When I asked her why she was still coming to me for the final decision, she made 2 points:

• She didn’t think she had the knowledge and experience to make the correct decision.
• She was afraid of my reaction should she indeed make a mistake.

My reaction to this revelation? I bought in a witness we both trusted and made a commitment that I would not be vindictive should she make a decision that was detrimental to the company. Shortly thereafter I had to go away for a week. When I returned, she asked me whether I remembered a certain decision I had taken before I left. I said yes. She then told me she had overturned my decision. The result? A loss of R20 000. My reaction while she was waiting with bated breath? I asked her what she had learnt from the process.

Not long after that, I had to leave office again for about a week. On my return, she asked again whether I remembered a certain decision. This time I wondered how much money she would cost me now. But I kept my cool and just said yes. She then informed me that she had overturned that decision as well and that it had a positive spin-off to the tune of R40 000. A bargain!

I realized I did not have the power to empower her. She was the only one that could do that. I could only create an environment within which she would feel it was safe to avail herself of the opportunity to empower herself. She had to feel it was safe to do so. She had to trust me!

In addition, she had to feel she had the ability to make the decisions herself. If she didn’t feel she could, she wouldn’t have been able to take those decisions. The gurus speak of “learned helplessness” or even “internalized oppression.” As the saying goes, whether you think you can or cannot, you will be right!

The long and the short of it is that we need to become learning organizations for our people to become empowered people. We need to encourage them and motivate them, and we need to create a culture of trust and mutual support. To think we can do the empowering of others by giving them authority, is to show a lack of understanding of the true nature of empowerment, and probably a tad bit of arrogance.

I read the work by Robert E. Quinn and Gretchen Spreitzer, “A Company of Leaders,” a number of years ago. In this book, the authors make the point that true empowerment is a psychological phenomenon as much as a cognitive one. They identified the following 4 dimensions of an empowered mindset:

• Meaning: I have a personal connection to my work, in as much as I care about my work. It is important to me.
• Self-Determination: I have freedom and discretion about how to do my work.
• Competence: I am confident about my abilities to do my work well.
• Impact: I make a difference. I can influence my surroundings and the work units and the organization itself listens to my ideas.

From an understanding of these dimensions, we can deduce that the traditional sense of empowerment, where I empower you, is very inadequate. I can create an environment where you can develop and grow personally to the point where you exhibit the above dimensions. I can expose you to training and development to help you develop the cognitive competencies you need. I can mentor and coach you to develop both your cognitive and emotional and spiritual knowledge. However, I cannot make the decision for you to empower yourself. That is ultimately your decision.

From this I have also learnt that I cannot expect people to commit to actions which are way above their potential. This would be unfair to both the individual and the organization. The person would be set up for failure, and the organization would ultimately pay the price. We need to help people to empower themselves to the level of their potential, whatever it is.

Elliotte Jaques developed the Stratified Systems Theory, where he made the point that people have natural levels of cognitive potential, as measured by their ability to deal with the uncertainty associated with future periods. The longer the period into the future you have the cognitive ability to deal with, the higher the level of your cognitive potential. For example, if you can deal with the cognitive complexity of about 5 years into the future, you are at a Level 4.

Aligned to this concept, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi proposed the concept of flow. According to Wikepedia, flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. When you are caught in the dissatisfaction of depression or the agitation of anxiety, you would be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.

People should be therefore assisted to empower themselves in order to be in flow. They should be helped to develop their potential and to live and work in a condition of flow. They should be in a constant state of elation and joy about doing their work, in an environment that is conducive for sustainable performance and empowerment. In any case, the one without the other is impossible. Putting people into a position where they do not have the potential to work productively and where they do not feel comfortable (in as much as they should), is tantamount to ignoring this principle. You are doing nobody a favor – not the organization, and definitely not the individual.

Empowerment is therefore not primarily a cognitive or governance issue. It is a psychological one. The most important element is the psyche of the individual and the organization!

The bottom line? Are you contributing towards the creation of an empowering organization and empowered employees and managers? Or are you the stumbling block? If you are uncertain, ask your peers and employees.

The irony is that if you are not an empowering organization, you probably will not hear the truth in any case. Not from your employees. It might be career limiting. Which makes the negative state of what I have spoken about, so dangerous. Nobody within the organization will tell the king he is actually naked!

Do you have your clothes on?

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1 Response

  1. Willie says:

    Very interesting,

    I agree with the fact that most people are scared of making decisions because of the consequences it might hold. But how often do I know more than the other person? The consequences will have the exact same effect on both of us.

    If people come to me to make a decision, why do they think I will be the best one to judge if it’s the right decision or not? Or why do they feel that I should know ‘more’ than them? I might have more experience, yes, and I’m glad to share my experience with anyone, but don’t expect me to make the final decision every time.

    I think, people try to get someone else to make a decision so that it provides an escape route, so if something goes bad, blame can be divided or shifted.

    I also think it’s a natural thing. Human beings have a tendency to have someone / Something above them, which they can look up to, like kings, presidents etc etc. I think it’s born into us. And in al facets of live we are searching for that someone to look up to. Most of the time (if you are a man), you are the leader at home. At work, someones else is the leader and you ‘look up’ to him / her. At a social event, someone else is the perceived leader, and we look up to him / her.

    I don’t know, it’s just my opinion?