On Empowerment: 3 Key Principles

Many years ago, fresh out of school I joined a children’s charity, working alternatively on youth empowerment, indicators for sustainable development, designing books written by and for kids on topics like human rights, the environment and in between all of that, doing fund-raising. It was great fun, running teams of volunteers from all over the world, burning the midnight oil, trying to send faxes to Sierra Leone in the 2 hour window when they had electricity, trying to decipher letters from kids in Africa wanting to start their own youth groups or persuading governments at the UN to give young people a voice and a say in running their future.

I was only 18 at the time. In retrospect this experience was something that really formed my belief in the importance of empowerment – what a difference it makes to motivation, to a sense of purpose, achievement, learning and understanding the deeper meaning to why you are doing something and how you are unique in the value you can add to something. Empowerment is not something you turn on or off like a light switch, it requires profound commitment and consistency to take root. Moreover, it requires an organisation to not just stand for some virtuous goals, but also be transparent, open and trusting in  sharing information and lastly, to have structures in place that allow for empowerment to happen, supported and coached by managers rather than suppressed by them. So here are my three steps to ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ (Mahatma Gandhi):

1) GOALS and VALUES Business people have struggled for years to try to work out the magic formula to taking their company to the next level and really breathing fire into the hearts of their employees, yet too often managers can’t help meddling in everything and creating a command-and-control structure, where even the most ridiculous questions need to be referred to superiors. There is no greater sure-fire way to kill any potential empowerment in an organisation, than command-and-control management.

When managers begin to realise command-and-control doesn’t work, it is time for the incentives approach, introducing competition between teams and before long, inadvertently creating a cut-throat atmosphere inside companies where everyone’s busy running after the carrots, trying to subvert the system to qualify for bonuses and having lost sight completely of the bigger picture or indeed the fact that none of us are as smart as all of us. The incentives, although designed to encourage intrinsic motivation, end up subverting it.

So how to create intrinsic motivation? It’s about making people identify with the goals. This requires some serious interpersonal skills and also some values or goals worth fighting for – profit isn’t enough. Profit is what allows us to be here, but ultimately money is simply a means to an end – not an end in itself, so what does the company really stand for? It helps if the organizational goals are virtuous, or perceived as virtuous, in some way. Apple creates almost fanatic identification, almost entirely through a narrative that started with a single Superbowl ad in 1984: we are against totalitarianism. To achieve the goals it is about creating a cohesive, jelled team that feels like a family, so that people have a sense of loyalty and commitment to their coworkers. For this, they need to be able to unite behind some values people want to fight for – this is essential as to why people want to be empowered. If the goals are clear and the values are something people want to fight for, empowerment is simply a way to fight more efficiently!

2) INFORMATION Lots of books keep dissecting the ins and outs of empowerment, what works, what doesn’t, how much or how little is enough – but they miss the point that without information empowerment can become a destructive force rather than a positive one. Empowerment relies on having the accurate view out of the window, it feeds on trust and transparency in a company and if some are ‘more worthy’ than others to information, then people start hoarding it, because it is valuable and start communicating on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. When this happens forget empowerment. People want empowerment to better do what they perceive is right, if the information on what is right is actively deprived of them, people are very unlikely to expend energy to first fight for the information they need to do something and then have any energy left to carry on once they have the information. Chances are their motivation is gone and however lofty the values of the company, hypocrisy is what rules at the end of the day.

3) EMPOWERMENT For empowerment to work you need both goals, values and information as mentioned before. This is assuming you have a talented and skilled work force. The freedom associated with empowerment can also mask the presence of people who aren’t pulling their weight (see post on spotting corporate freeloaders)- their effect on the rest of the team being detrimental and should be dealt with swiftly and decisively. The longer people hang around who don’t pull their weight, the longer it will take people around them to have their faith in management restored. It’s hard to believe in the goals and values of the company if you don’t believe in its management. The two go hand in hand and leaders need to be able to be the change they want to see in the world, leading by example.

So how do you empower people:

  1. Give people clear roles and responsibilities and the support/coaching they need to deliver things

  2. Give people the authority they need to as many decisions as possible on their own

  3. Have clear purpose, tasks, deliverables and time-lines

  4. Have clear structure for performance review, based on achievements, not subjective judgement

  5. Respect people for their know-how, give them a platform regardless of rank and recognise their achievements

  6. Information should be free so communicate fully

  7. Listen to people, expedite for them when necessary

  8. Treat people as you would your friends, if you wouldn’t behave like this to your friend, don’t do it to your employee, team mate or boss either.