Executive Education

How to Start Distributing Power and Stop Delegating It

The future of work is now today’s business paradigm. Because the world has changed substantially, companies must quickly adapt by broadening traditional hierarchical structures and inviting employees to actively voice their ideas. This doesn’t mean ”empowering“ employees through top-down trainings and access to leadership. It means making an intentional and specific shift to elevate employees to a position where they’re “in power.”

Leaders like to talk about autonomy, but few actually know how to put employees in power. That’s why empowerment initiatives are usually ineffective “lean” events with start and stop dates. But employees don’t need to be “granted” opportunities to practice autonomy or be heard — what they need is a horizontal, not vertical, leadership structure.

In self-managing organizations, power is distributed, not delegated. There’s no room for delays due to hierarchies and controlling leadership in the post-pandemic world. Instead, your organization must infuse trust, courage, and positive assumptions about people into its DNA in order to remain competitive.

The Problem With Pervasive Company Hierarchies

Command-and-control companies inherently breed bureaucracy and, consequently, create bottlenecks. We’ve seen it time and time again at my company, HPWP Group. A manager of a 900-person operation had to get two levels of approval to spend more than $10,000 for anything in a multimillion-dollar operation. An aerospace company kept its plaster and tool builders separated from the fabrication team by 100 yards and a train track even though their work was closely related. It took five levels of approval to allow one tool building team to tour the fabrication building for an hour. The list goes on and on.

Hierarchies, by definition, have a chain of command. And chains of command create silos. The more silos that exist, the more communication needed to surmount them. Worst of all, silos prevent improvement ideas that could have come from cross-functional collaboration.

Senior leaders frequently lament that the values and priorities they have set are not getting “down” to the front line. But when communication must pass through several people like a game of telephone, the message will inevitably change. This, of course, creates confusion, spreads false information, and muddles priorities — all of which impedes market speed.

How to Relinquish and Distribute Power

Hierarchical models worked well during the Industrial Revolution when businesses needed a structured, regulated approach to manufacture dependable products. In addition, because there were more workers than work at the time, the prevailing sentiment was that employees were lucky to have jobs. Those who rose to leadership positions enjoyed more privileges, and the ability to command and control was respected and rewarded.

Although plenty of successful companies still use that management style, the environment has changed. Job seekers have more choices, and technology is altering the way companies look for and employ talent. In this new era, command-and-control companies are hampered by restrictive policies and a lack of flexibility. If you want to elevate employees to a position of power, here’s what you can do:

Stop being the authority with all the answers.

Resist the urge to respond to questions or responses with statements. Instead, paraphrase what you’ve heard, ask for more information, or reflect the sentiment you’re hearing (anger, frustration, etc.). Remember: The people you serve are adults who frequently solve problems outside of work. When they can, they’ll figure out their own solutions.

At the same time, don’t put yourself in a position in which only you have the answer or final say. HPWP Group worked with the owner of a multimillion-dollar company who required every single check, no matter how small, to be signed by him. This included reimbursements of consultants’ travel expenses. When you’re an absolute authority, you discourage autonomy and collaboration.

Give employees ownership of their solutions.

When faced with a major issue, identify the people most affected by it. Once you know who the stakeholders are, form a team (multi-level and cross-functional, if appropriate), provide a clear charter, and ask for recommendations within a short period. A collaborative solution that employees own will always be more effective than one that a single manager ideates.

For example, one client of ours saw a major increase in production while implementing a new line. Already short two supervisors, the manager thought it’d be best to quickly come up with a plan over the weekend and announce it on Monday. The current supervisors weren’t happy with it, so they only grudgingly complied. He could have instead called that small group together, explained the challenge, asked them to brainstorm for Monday, and enjoyed his weekend. Whatever they came up with would have been better implemented because they owned the solution.

Learn to let go.

In the past, we worked with a transportation manager who regularly put together the routes for his drivers. He got tired of hearing complaints and, having attended our workshop on positive assumptions, decided to turn the weekend scheduling over to the drivers. He waited all weekend for calls from unhappy customers and his drivers, but he received none. The result? He opened up his capacity, and the drivers gained more autonomy.

As a leader, you have the education, financial experience, and broad market perspective necessary to guide and pivot your company. Don’t get caught up in the day-to-day when you have a critical role that few others can do. Hire the right people, then get out of their way. It’s your job to give them purpose, not to micromanage.

As a leader, you likely feel like you need to have all the answers, especially during COVID-19. But the good news is that employees want to come up with their own solutions. The new era of work calls for structural change, so leverage your team’s collective talent by putting individuals in power instead of trying to empower them yourself.


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Sue Bingham
Sue Bingham, founder and principal of HPWP Group, has been at the forefront of the positive business movement for 35 years. She’s driven to create high-performing workplaces by partnering with courageous leaders who value the contributions of team members. Bingham also wrote a bestselling Amazon book: “Creating the High Performance Work Place: It’s Not Complicated to Develop a Culture of Commitment.” She also contributed to “From Hierarchy to High Performance,” an international bestseller. Sue Bingham is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.