The Surprising Reasons People Resist Being Empowered
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The Surprising Reasons People Resist Being Empowered

The Surprising Reasons People Resist Being Empowered

It seems so obvious, like such a no-brainer: your business has reached the stage at which you’ve stabilized the core and you must scale. Meanwhile, your market demands that you grow while getting even more nimble and flexible. The answer is obvious, right? Drive decision-making down in the organization. Stop holding on to it. Empower people to act quickly in the customer’s and the company’s best interest.

When you announce that you’re going to do this, heads nod. Who could disagree with being more trusted? More empowered? Less oppressed? Philosophically, it all seems to line up, but when it comes to execution, it nearly always falls apart. Last month, we looked at three contributing factors to this failure: a poorly defined end state, no mid-level guiding coalition, and assuming that empowerment has to happen in a linear, top-down sequence. Let’s say that over this month you’ve addressed all three, yet people still expect you to make decisions you’ve told them you want them to make.  Why?

There are several reasons that could apply to anyone, but often align with particular personality types. If you understand this, you can begin to address this reluctance through a more personal and compassionate lens. Compassion is frequently a bit of a  blind spot for leaders, but those who can open their minds to understanding why people act the way they do build far more engagement and alignment than those who look at these challenges only in terms of business systems and metrics.

Resistance to empowerment might be better described as reluctance rather than resistance. Your people have concerns – and fear is the emotion underlying concern. It may sometimes look like anger but think about it, when you have been angry, what drove the anger? It was fear of losing something, or that something would happen that would have a negative consequence.

Likewise, your people aren’t fools. They know there could be very negative consequences for them personally if they embrace empowerment.

Let’s look at how this can play out when viewed through the lens of personality type. There are many aspects of personality type that can influence how an employee feels about being empowered. Today I will divide the personality types according to those that share the same dominant cognitive process, or mental function.

Jung equated the dominant cognitive process to the captain of a ship. He believed that it is the most conscious process, and that your other cognitive processes act in support of the dominant process. We unconsciously see our dominant process as a hero, and feel most heroic when using it.

Apply this insight to understanding reluctance to become empowered, and what do you see?  Empowerment might mean that we won’t get to use our heroic mental function nearly as often, and that we’ll be demanded to spend much time using our less conscious functions. No wonder we hold back!

Put another way, each type often has concerns that, if expressed and taken seriously, will reveal gaps, flaws, inefficiencies, and other issues with the empowerment plan. By recognizing and discussing these, you can not only compassionately engage employees, you can also improve the power and effectiveness of your empowerment efforts.

There are no personality types that are inherently more or less threatened by empowerment. That’s a complete myth. Some aspect of empowerment is likely to be concerning for each type, as indicated below.


    • Most conscious function plans, organizes, and measures progress
    • Most likely concern is that empowerment will force them to lose control over outcomes due to a less structured environment,  greater reliance on incompetent coworkers, or poorly defined criteria for performance


    • Most conscious function gains deep, long-term insights and realizations
    • Most likely concern is that empowerment will force them to manage unfamiliar, complex, multiple details previously managed by the boss, or interact constantly with teammates doing group planning and decision-making (particularly concerning if they view their teammates as incompetent)


    • Most conscious function verifies and stabilizes
    • Most likely concern is that empowerment will create too many unpredictable and unmanaged variables, making it more difficult to create repeatable success, or that working in an empowered way will be inefficient or ineffective compared with the current way of working


    • Most conscious function nurtures trust and demonstrates care
    • Most likely concern is that empowerment will cause peer conflict to drag on and become toxic instead of being quickly discussed and resolved, or that the team will not be able to develop the deep level of trust required to make excellent decisions


    • Most conscious function envisions possibilities and emerging patterns
    • Most likely concern is that empowerment will require them to reach closure too soon on too many decisions, choking off the creative process which produces their best ideas, or that they will have to deal with dense bureaucracies that the boss previously navigated on their behalf


    • Most conscious function experiences the tangible present
    • Most likely concern is that empowerment will cause them to be pinned down by too many commitments, with all spontaneity choked off and too much structured, scheduled team activity


    • Most conscious function precisely defines within a framework, theory, or principle
    • Most likely concern is that empowerment will require them to deal with the illogical or incompetent people that their bosses previously handled, or that they will have to constantly collaborate too closely with others and no longer have time to work alone


    • Most conscious function assigns a value or degree of importance and provides a moral compass
    • Most likely concern is that empowerment will force them to give up deeply valued work responsibilities in order to take on these new decision-making responsibilities, or that their most trusted relationships will be damaged by this new distribution of power

Warning! The worst thing you can do with this knowledge is play amateur psychologist, approaching each employee and saying, “I read a blog that tells me what you’re afraid of, and I just want to tell you that there’s nothing to worry about.” It’s a terrible idea for several reasons:

    • You may not actually know the employee’s type, even though you think you do.
    • The “most likely concern” is exactly that – likely, but not certain, and not comprehensive. Other factors may come into play.
    • It’s annoying! Your employees will want to smack you, not follow your lead to the land of empowerment.

A better approach is to explore these concerns first alone or with a trusted advisor, and then with your team.

Here are some questions to get the conversations going:

    • What are everyone’s individual concerns about being more empowered? How accurately does the Selby Group list reflect your concerns?
    • What has led to these concerns – is it truly about individual personal needs or is it something else?
    • Is the leader’s greatest concern about empowerment different from the greatest concerns of each of the employees on the team?
    • Are we so “type-alike” as a group that we have only addressed the concerns of one or two types?
    • If so, did that leave the valid concerns of “minority types” out of the equation? What did we miss? Was the quality of our solution compromised by these missing perspectives?
    • How can we address any concerns that were not previously surfaced?

See what insights you gain from the discussion that will help you all move forward toward your goal with greater confidence and ease.