How do you Empower People?
We've noticed recently, especially when working with organisations that have merged with or acquired other companies, we've been asked to do the 'empowerment thing'.
'Our staff are feeling unmotivated, they're not being proactive, they're not taking responsibility. We need them to be empowered - do something to help us.'
Easy enough to say, but what on earth does it mean?
You're empowered to do what I want you to do? You're empowered to do what you want to do?
It's certainly not just telling people they're empowered and expecting them to understand what you mean. 'OK, you're empowered, see you.'
See, we think a lot of managers, when they use the empowerment word, really mean this:
'First, I want you to see the world exactly the way I do, then I want you to do what I want, when I want it, in the way I want it done.'
With that attitude, it's the manager who's being empowered here, not the staff!
You see, empowerment is a dangerous thing. What if the other person doesn't want what I want? What if they go off on some wild tangent that wasn't in my original game plan? What if once they get empowered they start doing things differently?
So first, let's take a step back and see why many of these companies have this issue in the first place.
We're only talking here about organisations who genuinely think they want to create a positive shift in the way their people work; not the many organisations that will pay lip service to the idea of empowerment, but really, it's just a tick the box exercise and all they want is to maintain the status quo.
Given the volatile economic times we live in, companies are going through mountains of change: not just the merger/acquisition situation, but also, downsizing, streamlining, drops in profits or market share, hiving call centres off to cheaper climes, work-life balance pressures. You name it, companies are going through it.
Now, it's not that we think any of this is a bad thing; on the contrary, the best companies are continually on the lookout for creative ways of staying alive and buoyant: they want to do well.
The problem is that when companies experience upheaval, change, more upheaval, new ways of doing things, the people they employ begin to get worn down by all the uncertainty: what's going to happen next?
People get dispirited, anxious, unsure; they feel under pressure and stressed and their work suffers accordingly.
Then what happens? Well, when your back is against the wall or you think it is you go into survival mode. And when in survival mode, the company's desire to empower people is not going to get a look in, even though it's what companies think will make things get better.
So here's what survival mode at its worst can look like:
Caution becomes paramount, risks at a minimum
People hunker down below the parapet
Creativity tends to get sidelined
People deal with what's in front of them (the next crisis)
Thinking is short-term, not long-term: 'Let me just get through this next thing.'
Since one of the universal driving forces for most humans is humiliation avoidance, in a survival mindset people are likely to play safe in order to avoid embarrassment and getting it wrong.
People tend to criticise since every mistake or problem looks enormous during survival. Mistakes can even feel life-threatening. Management thinking and behaviour lurches from crisis to crisis even when the real crises are over.
A survival mentality can exist just as much in an organisation that's doing well as one that's encountering difficulties. An organisation may have come out of a period of difficulty and has not yet shed the very things that helped the company get through the crisis.
Survival tactics are great when you need to survive.
But if you're beyond that, then they will hamstring further progress.
Maya Angelou, the American poet, writer, and polemicist once said something along the line of: 'This life isn't about survival we've done that. But it's about thriving, with passion, compassion, humour and style.'
What we think is important here is attitude, rather than literal survival.
Successful companies thrive with passion, compassion, humour and style.
When there is a thriving mentality, processes, systems and procedures are flexible, hierarchies support the efficient running and development of the company and the people in it; change is welcomed because it's part of an evolutionary process.
There is another difference between surviving and thriving, which leads us neatly to empowerment
During survival, there tends to be what I call passive choosing: people go along with what's being laid down but not necessarily agreeing with it (and of course complaining elsewhere about what they feel is being imposed).
It's hard for people to initiate things, they're afraid of failing and will wait to be told because it's safer.
When things are thriving, there is a lot of active choosing going on: ideas, suggestions, responsibilities, happen throughout the organisation, not just from the top down.
So now we get to the 'empowerment thing'.
There really is nothing new under the sun, there's just whatever the current buzzwords say it is. One of them happens to be empowerment. Managers want their staff to be empowered, and to unlock their creativity.
Years ago in New York Jo Ellen worked for the great Russian choreographer, George Balanchine and this is what he said about creativity: 'There is no such thing as creativity. You just assemble what's already there.' Of course, that's a bit disingenuous given his extraordinary 'creative' output, but we get what he means.
As far as we're concerned, part of assembling is about re-examining old ideas and making them live for today. There are plenty of businesses, managers, leaders, senior execs doing just that. But we've decided to take a more unusual example from history: Catherine the Great of Russia.
She was quite a businesswoman.
If you overlook the odd assassination or two (including that of her husband so she could ascend to the throne) and the manner in which she crushed the Crimea as well as the Turks, she had an astuteness, cunning and vision to put most company managers to shame.
For her time she was truly enlightened. For our times, she had some exceptionally far-sighted ways of managing people.
So with the current buzzword of empowerment in mind, here's a quote from a description of her by Prof Mikhail Piotrovsky: 'She had a talent for identifying outstanding people and supporting them by matching them with tasks at which they could excel.'
We don't think you could find a better definition of empowerment.
Part of the foundation for everything she did was a commitment to give Russians something to be proud of - the very thing that business people talk about today.
She had her own jargon of the day. In her Winter Palace, The Hermitage in St Petersburg, she entertained not only her own 'staff' but also visiting dignitaries, diplomats and ambassadors. She devised a set of 10 Rules of Behaviour, some of which are certainly tongue in cheek, but most are designed to encourage a kind of empowerment.
Here are a few of those rules we think many companies could well take on board and live by to create empowerment: they're just as relevant today as in 18th Century Russia.
All ranks shall be left outside the doors, similarly hats, and particularly swords.
Orders of precedence and haughtiness, and anything of such like which might result from them, shall be left at the doors.
Speak with moderation and not too loudly, so that others present have not an earache or a headache.
Argue without anger or passion.
Do not sigh or yawn, neither bore nor fatigue others.
Agree to partake of any innocent entertainment suggested by others.
Eat well of good things, but drink with moderation so that each should be able always to find his legs on leaving these doors.
All disputes must stay behind closed doors, and what goes in one ear should go out the other before departing through the doors.
For an autocrat, she had a fairly egalitarian outlook, which many managers could well afford to emulate. She gave people a huge amount of autonomy as long as they fit within the picture of her 'vision' for Russia. She did indeed have an understanding of empowerment and developed Russia over a long and prosperous reign.
We'll tell you a story about one of our former clients.
We were brought in a few years ago to work on a project to help set up involvement teams, including people from the shop floor.
One of the things management said early on in the briefing process was that they wanted the shop floor to be empowered, and we asked them what that meant.
They said that they wanted the shop floor to feel able to work more flexibly, to be able to come forward with ideas for cost savings, for doing things differently, and for identifying areas for improved waste management.
Well, it didn't take us very long talking to people and touring the plant to realise that this shop floor was totally empowered.
They just did whatever the hell they wanted to. And so the gap was between management, who wanted the shop floor to be empowered the way they saw the meaning of the word, and the shop floor, who were completely happy running things exactly the way they saw fit.
Our job was to bring those two extremes together, so that the shop floor felt encouraged to bring forward ideas so that they could do things better, as opposed to just doing whatever they wanted.
But for us it was a fascinating look at what empowerment can mean to different people. We were working with people who actually were empowered, thank you very much. They knew what they wanted and were doing it. It wasn't really helping the organisation, and in the long run, it wasn't really helping them either since they quite simply weren't running the show entirely successfully.
Empowerment wasn't what they needed!
Empowerment doesn't mean that people have permission to do whatever it is they want.
If you have a picture of what empowerment looks like, chuck it out. Otherwise, you'll be very frustrated and disappointed when others don't measure up and fulfil the picture.
The reality is some people don't want to be 'empowered'.
They're happy being told what to do and when. They need lots of guidance and hand-holding. Giving guidance and hand-holding will make them feel empowered because they got what they needed.
For others, empowerment may mean 'leave me alone! Don't ask how I'm doing; I'll tell you when I'm finished.'
Here's another example from Jo Ellen: while writing this I looked back at my own career history and what had empowered me.
One of my first ever 'proper' jobs was with the now-defunct department store in New York, B Altman and Co.
I was 16 and all of us new recruits had a week's training to get us up to speed before we went onto the floor: we had one day on learning how to work the till and tote up our takings for the day.
The rest of the week was learning about 'The Altman Image': how to 'hold' ourselves as employees of this wonderful place, what the store was trying to accomplish, being proud of the company we worked for, knowing your section manager was there to support and encourage.
And I was proud.
I rarely shopped anywhere else till store closed! My sense of being empowered was in being told I was a vital part of the business my bit was just as important as everyone else's.
Here's another story. One of our Senior Partners was working with a team of women who were doing the same job for 18 years. The same job. Sitting at the same desks. Aside from advances in technology, their jobs looked exactly the same as 18 years ago when they started.
They felt marginalised and ignored, and they were right: they were.
Again, management said, 'We want these women empowered.'
When we asked the women themselves about that they pointed to the company's organisational chart, which showed them as this wee little branch stuck out in the wilderness that no one ever really saw except to complain about when things didn't go well.
What we ended up doing was to have them re-draw the organisational chart putting themselves in the centre with all the other departments radiating out. What was it they did that the company couldn't survive without? And their empowerment trick was to come up with a plan so that others saw them the same way. With a little help, they empowered themselves.
We've subsequently used that process with a number of departments in other companies who have felt marginalised and irrelevant.
When we work within business we think about empowerment as being enlightened beyond your time. It's going beyond the norm, it's going beyond the traditional ways of doing things, it goes beyond the right way of doing things, but looking at how to move things forward, with the least amount of fuss and difficulty.
When you try to squash something into the 'right way' of doing things, or into procedures that have to follow a rigid structure, then you'll get into trouble.
Now we think that procedures are brilliant and necessary. We couldn't run Impact Factory without them. They make life easy, they facilitate efficiency, they cut out a lot of aggravation and grief.
However, rigid adherence to any kind of process takes away creativity and innovation from individuals. To empower, you need to develop the creativity that people already have and perhaps aren't fully utilising. You want to get people to a place where they feel able to suggest and offer things, to doing things, rather than waiting to be told what to do.
How do you get to a place where people feel ready willing and able to move forward? Feel ready and able to bring something to the table that wasn't there before? Feel inclined to try new things, rather than looking for approval or looking for the right way to do things?
Well, to begin with, the word empowerment is probably a misnomer. We would define it as active participation, involvement, accountability, encouragement, setting boundaries and expectations, listening to and acknowledging people's ideas.
In its simplest form, it's treating people as adults whatever their role is, no matter where they sit in the hierarchy.
Hierarchies are necessary the buck does have to stop somewhere. Decision-making does have to be tied down, areas of responsibility do need to be in place. However, like processes, if hierarchies are rigid, then the natural tendency that people have to project parental-ness onto others, gets exacerbated. The infantilising of staff becomes common, and staff, in turn, behave like difficult and angry teenagers.
Ok, we hear some of you say, what if no matter how much I treat someone like an adult, they still act like a difficult teenager?
You start by deciding where to put your energy.
Do you put effort into the people who are hard work and resistant or the people who already want to move and shift? They are your 'champions' within the organisation and working with them will help bring others along.
Think along these lines:
Those who want to
Those who follow
Those who resist
Those who are stuck and it would be best if they left
Those who are 'Early Adopters', the ones who are game for anything and react quickly to innovation.
You need to seek out the doers.
This is how you enrol people in change, because, for the Early Adopters, those who do, those who want to, change is an ongoing, ever-evolving process that's part of their view of life anyway. To them change isn't even defined as such it just is.
If something is working well, it gets improved; if it isn't working well, it gets developed. Shifting and evolving structures are part of the deal, they are not fixed and static.
Robin once worked at a conference a few years ago where Tom Peters was the keynote speaker: Peters challenged his audience by telling them that as few as 5% of the people there would follow his suggestions. The rest wouldn't, no matter how enthusiastic they might feel, in the moment, because it was easier to stay comfortable than to rise to the challenge that change brings about. Even if they know it's the best thing to do to move their companies forward.
Similarly, here's a quote from a book by Adam Phillips called Darwin's Worms and in it he talks about transience and about resistance to change. He put it this way: 'If we love our routines more than our futures, we are fatally addicted to the past.'
With change comes the potential for uncertainty as well as for exhilaration.
If people feel empowered and facilitating change is part of working life, then hierarchies and empowerment are totally compatible. The objective is to move things forward, not just getting through.
Here's a few suggestions for some 21st Century Rules of Behaviour:
Identify what people do well and have them do more of it.
Set clear expectations.
Set clear boundaries.
Allow mistakes, yet have real consequences.
Have consequences, not threats.
Consider all ideas no matter how far-fetched.
Find out what other people want and give it to them (within reason!).
Listen to what people are saying, not just what you want to hear.
Deal with difficulties as they arise, rather than hoping they'll go away of their own accord.
Be less nice, but also less nasty. (see The Art of Saying 'No' in A Jolly Good Read)
Encourage active choosing.
Deal with the boredom factor.
Make it clear how everyone fits in.
Re-draw the company structure: not change the existing structure, but look at it anew.
Move the furniture break patterns.
Publish successes: public acknowledgement is necessary.
Run appreciation sessions, not just talking to people when things go wrong.
Have a discussion about creating Contracts and Agreements between people and departments
Have aspirations, but dream with your feet on the ground
View conflict in terms of resolution, not something to be avoided
Appear less rushed; make time for people.
Add a few of your own, now.
From all of this, set one clear, achievable goal you can do in the next week to empower the people around you, no matter where you or they sit in the hierarchy.
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