Empowerment is not everything

Whenever I consult with organisations, I am amazed with the prevalence of a utopic mindset when it comes to dealing with the behaviours of employees.

There is somehow this sense that if I spell out the numbers and expectations clear enough, everything else should fall into place.

In fact, I should learn to control less and empower them to take charge-after all, isn't every employee a responsible human being who has no need to be reminded on what is the right thing to do?

The word "empowerment" has become a catch-all phrase that in my observation, has been a simplistic approach towards everything from productivity to profitability.

Is giving more power and autonomy really the answer to improved engagement and performance?

In today's context, empowerment means to assign authority and trust to an individual to carry out certain assigned responsibilities.

This all sounds good as an end goal, however, we do ourselves a great disservice when we overestimate the power of potential goodness and underestimate the pull of human nature.

The hype of potential goodness

Think about it-if everyone on planet Earth is inherently good and full of goodwill, then there is really no need for an organisation to have a department called human resources (HR) or training and development.

This is because everyone is already empowered and enabled to do what contributes toward the common good, and every behaviour and mindset will be directed towards the welfare of others.

Sounds utopic, right?

Yet, when a company grows, it is the HR department which groans!

The growing pain of an organisation has more to do with its people rather than its processes, and more to do with mindset rather than methodology.

The fact of the matter is that when people are left to their own devices, the tendency is towards degradation and the breakdown of order (very much like the second law of thermodynamics which states that without any external intervention, all closed systems tend to wind down).

That is the reason why leaders in any organisation are constantly vigilant to make sure that there is a strong emphasis on the need to communicate, converse and connect.

This is not to say that employees do not have the desire to do what is right.

However, there is a gap between desire and deliberation, and between intention and being intentional.

When it comes to empowering employees, it is important that we focus on the power to serve a greater purpose.

Without this focus on a greater purpose, then whatever power is given to the employee will end up being utilised for self-serving purposes.

Hence, there should be less focus on power and more emphasis on purpose.

Tapping the potential goodness in an individual is not like turning on the tap!

The song Let It Go! (from Disney's animated movie, Frozen) is certainly not a song of empowerment which I would promote-if every employee sings in the same spirit as Elsa, you will witness the creation of many, many small "icy kingdoms."

What we need is to first decide which "kingdom" to seek, then the power will flow in the right direction.

Empowerment tip no. 1: Make the leadership decision

Leaders can never expect to be popular.

On the contrary, as a leader, he is expected to deliver even when he may not win the popularity contest.

The leader is known for his decisiveness rather than desirableness.

The commitment to stick through a decision regardless of shifting circumstances is what makes empowerment meaningful.

Empowerment within the context of decisive leadership requires that:

  1. The focus of the chief executive officer to be communicated clearly at all levels of the organisation
  2. The focus of the manager to act swiftly against non-performers
  3. The focus of the employee to understand the real priorities

When the above foundations are in place, then the act of empowerment makes sense because decisiveness gives direction to the energy of empowerment.

Without decisiveness, empowerment generates more heat than light.

The hype of performance management

Besides a superficial understanding of potential goodness, there is also the quick fix approach of measuring everything.

The thinking seems to be: If measurement drives behaviour, why not measure everything and anything?

Now, this line of reasoning ignores the reality that when it comes to human motivation, the correlation is hardly linear.

The output from a human being is not as predictable as the input just because we keep drumming in the same message. So, some managers would go about chanting the performance mantra: "You all know the numbers, go bring in the results . . . or else."

This is repeated over and over and the sound can oftentimes be so familiar that employees are no longer excited about achieving their goals.

I remember consulting for a pharmaceutical company which was losing 24% of their sales force the year before and when focus group interviews were conducted, the feedback was this: "It was not about the numbers, rather it was the way the numbers were communicated. We felt that we had no say in the planning process and worse still, we are expected to perform, minus the needed support and resources."

Unfortunately, managers today are more concerned about what they want rather than what their team needs in order to do a good job.

When employees lack the means to do their work well, frustration with their inability quickly follows, as does anger with the company for placing the worker in such a difficult spot.

In this case, just reciting the empowerment mantra will only add more salt to the wound.

Empowerment tip no. 2: Make the support available

Although having a clearly communicated goal is motivating, another equally important point is the employees' perception that the company is backing them up with the equipment they want and need to do a good job-this serves as a powerful psychological motivator.

More than ever, managers today need to realise that it is not about the pressure of performance that is going to hit the home run, rather it is the psychology of performance that is going to seal the deal.

It is not only about getting people to work but we need to know why people will work on something.

According to Gallup, whether a person has the materials and equipment needed to do his work well is the strongest indicator of job stress.

The data shows that some of the things that frustrates employees is when they want to make a difference at work, but are held back from doing so due to lack of resources.

Here are three practical steps for employers to consider so that your effort to empower does not backfire:

  1. Consider the materials, equipment and resources required by employees to do a good job
  2. Celebrate current accomplishments first before communicating the next one
  3. Conduct small group conversations to address any doubts or lingering issues which might affect the achievement of the set goals

The hype of practising innovation

Then, there is also the well-intended focus on creating a culture of innovation. It all sounds like the lyrics of a well-sung tune-if we do not innovate, then someone else will eat our lunch.

So, in the name of innovation, we keep pushing the boundaries with best practices and knowledge-sharing.

This is all well and good, and it all sounds very empowering.

Let's empower our people to be innovative, let's give them the freedom to explore and to think out of the box.

All of this sounds really good, but it could be a case of being too good to be true.

Let me explain why.

When an organisation implements initiatives of innovation, there is more to it than just stringing a few events together.

There is the additional element of team dynamics which requires careful attention.

There is also an emotive element which is even stronger than innovation-it is a sense of fairness and right recognition.

Often, when innovation is pitched, the factor of work distribution is not considered.

In fact, according to Gallup, two out of three employees reported that they are doing more than their share of the designated workload.

This means that two out of three employees feel that they are carrying the slack of someone who is not performing.

This perception that their co-worker is not committed to his work as much as them can be counter-productive to your innovation programmes!

Talented performers are very alert towards matters of recognition and contribution.

On the other hand, there are organisation leaders who go the other extreme and treat everyone the same-with the thinking that since there could be accusations of favouritism, I might as well then treat everyone the same.

Now this mode of approach is not going to work either!

When it comes to the worth of a person, one cannot discriminate, but when it comes to the quality of one's work, then discrimination can take place.

If a talented employee perceives that non-performers are rewarded at the same level as them, then the message sent is clear-mediocrity is tolerated.

So, there are two options left for them, either they join the crowd (become a part of the culture) or look for another crowd to join (seeking to move on to a better culture).

Empowerment tip no. 3: Make the team accountable

Hence, it is not only about the bright, individual "sparks" which make innovation really work, there is also the additional factor of team accountability.

Often, when a select few talented individuals feel that they are the only ones carrying the load, it may feel great to have this "saviour" experience in the beginning, but after a while, the load might be too much to bear.

Furthermore, if others are taking a free ride in the process, then it becomes a disengaging experience.

The key then is to ensure that an accountability process is put in place so that when the initial innovative enthusiasm wanes, there is the ownership commitment to make things happen in a collaborative way.

Here are three steps for you to consider so that empowering your employees for innovation does not become an exercise in futility:

  1. Define the scope of innovation into a series of key results and targets that are cascaded to every team member's role and job expectations.
  2. Reward contribution openly and recognise the efforts of performers.
  3. On the same token, non-performers must be reprimanded swiftly as well.

However, this needs to be done in a way that protects the dignity of the individual and by giving opportunities for change and a turnaround.

In order for the above to work, managers ought to be comfortable in learning the skills of conducting accountability conversations.

Without accountability, it is every employee for himself and this will lead to individual star performers, and we will never be able to win as a team.

And when it comes to sustainable high performance, it is the team's contribution that matters.

There is a saying that rings true-if you want to travel fast, travel alone, but if you want to travel far, travel together.

Conclusion

Empowering employees is great, but it is never designed to be a solo activity-it must be done in the context of having a proper understanding of individual behaviour, team dynamics and management support.

Without the right focus, empowerment of employees can actually end up being disengaging for them because it is energy produced which does not have the proper channel for expression.

This article first appeared on Leaderonomics.com

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