What does employee empowerment really mean?
Empowerment is not just delegation (which is really the act of acting on your behalf), nor is it working with you on something (that’s collaboration), nor being supervised (that’s training), nor being told to own your decisions (that’s accountability).
True empowerment literally means you have to give some of your power away. There is no other way to truly enable your employees to have the responsibility, authority and autonomy to have more impact and get more done.
I often hear my C-Suite clients tell me that they have empower their B-Suite to make decisions and act autonomously. When I ask them how many layers they have stripped out of their approval process or how many governance forums they have replaced themselves with a non-exec chair, it’s evident that what most senior leaders mean by empowerment is loose at best.
What empowerment actually means is ‘the act of giving power to someone’.
And to truly unleash your workforce, you need to release your middle managers first.
I can remember the first time I chuckled at a Dilbert cartoon about middle managers. In this one, he described middle managers as ‘the glue that binds the apathy to the vague objectives.’ The triple edged irony! Delicious.
Yet it dawned on me over the coming years, that Dilbert doesn’t much like middle managers. Until very recently, he was not alone. Most management consulting firms had them squarely in their sights too – for a while cutting middle management became so prevalent that it earned its own elegant label – ‘delayering’.
Yet in the last eighteen months, we have a seen a complete change of heart by these very same organisations, who are now rewriting the narrative about the role and value of midlevel leaders. (The Economist, McKinsey, HBR, Forbes, )
I’ve been working to develop modern middle managers for the last four years – who McKinsey now recognises as the ‘forgotten but critical cohort’ of business, and who I call the B-Suite. And B-Suite Leaders have a very different role to those immortalised by Dilbert. Yesterday’s bureaucrat, middle-man and micro-manager has become today’s influencer, connector and decision-maker.
As business velocity, complexity, uncertainty and disruption increases, we’re forced to devolve many traditionally senior leadership responsibilities to the B-Suite. Unless we do this, we have no hope of seeing them empower their staff in return – empowerment has to start with letting go at the top, investing in the middle, and reaping rewards from the bottom up.
One of the big reasons that the C-Suite rarely practice true empowerment is a lack of trust. Trust in capability and commitment. The other reason is risk. Of course, it’s safer to keep decision making in the hands of those trained and experienced at making decisions.
But if you’re not handing over decisions, no matter your reasons, then you’re not empowering your workforce.
In my work with leaders and their teams, there are a few underlying issues that the C-Suite could iron out if they are seeking a more empowered workforce:
- Workload management. Empowerment can often be a euphemism for doing more or taking more accountability. Without addressing the crushing weight of workload, you’ll find the concept of empowerment can be treated as a poison chalice.
- Burnout. A lack of boundaries combined with mounting workload has resulted in 4 out of 5 Australians experiencing burnout – indicated by feeling “used up” at the end of every workday. Burnout dulls the brain, making the prospect of making more decisions unattractive instead of attractive.
- Psychological safety. Fear of failure is still rife in most organisations – we are heavily programmed to avoid making mistakes and to avoid taking risks. As a result, most workforces are cautious – sometimes to the point of refusing to make decisions that are ‘above their paygrade’.
- Confidence. Even the most eager worker can experience a crisis of confidence when it comes to making a decision or taking on responsibility for something new and unfamiliar.
In the center of all these scenarios sits your B-Suite leader again – negotiating workloads and priorities, the no1 workplace contributor to positive mental wellbeing and resilience, the performance coach and the true custodian of psychologically safe workplaces.
Employee empowerment is ‘the act of giving power to someone’.
The most important someone is your B-Suite leaders. Once they have your confidence, and you have built their capability, the flow on effect will be profound and permanent. If you skip them and go directly to empowering employees, they’ll be undermined and will cling onto their power which in turn will sabotage your efforts towards empowerment.
Written by Rebecca Houghton.
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