Why Empowerment Initiatives Run Out of Gas
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Why Empowerment Initiatives Run Out of Gas

Why Empowerment Initiatives Run Out of Gas

How many times have you told your managers to empower their people in order to improve engagement, accelerate innovation, or build a stronger succession pipeline? And how often did it stick?

Levels of empowerment rarely change to any significant degree. In fact, in our practice we often enter an organization after empowerment efforts have stalled out, faded away, or – most ironically – run out of energy before they could break through dense bureaucracy.

Why do attempts to empower a workforce fail? I frequently see three contributing factors:

1. Poorly defined end state, which naturally leads to vague goals that aren’t aligned with the business, which leads to weak metrics. This also results in “empowerment work” competing with “real work.” An initiative that is perceived as not directly aligned with the business and competing with “real work” will not ever be prioritized, no matter how much people believe in it at a philosophical level.

2. No mid-level guiding coalition to translate the ideals into pragmatic actions and facilitate frequent, ongoing, multi-directional communication.

3. Assuming empowerment has to happen in a top-down sequence. Empowerment is a significant organizational change, so it’s never as tidy and sequential as that. While it’s true that an empowerment initiative needs a tenacious executive sponsor and an aligned senior team, it’s not true that the entire executive team must somehow all become the ultimate role models before anyone else can do anything. Empowerment is a multi-directional transition. Plenty of workforces have been empowered through a mix of assertive individual contributors and managers who are willing to speak up and take risks, a strong and committed mid-level guiding coalition, and a powerful executive sponsor who nudges (o.k., shoves) the rest of the senior team forward when they begin to fall behind in their own progress toward empowering the organization.   

 Today, I’ll focus on defining your end state.

This is a strategic decision across the organization, not an individual decision. The senior team must choose the level of empowerment that best supports your business strategy. The entire senior team must be aligned on this end state, not just on the general direction of “increasing empowerment.” Without this alignment, you won’t be able to set clear goals, and metrics will be weak or non-existent. The initiative will run out of gas.

Did you know there are four levels of empowerment? Says who? Says Jennifer. No level is inherently superior to the others. You have to target the level that best supports your business strategy. They are:

1. Minimal empowerment. The key characteristic of this level is authority, generally exercised by managers on up.

2. Intermediate empowerment. The key characteristic of this level is delegation of decision-making authority. The focus here in on the individual, not on the team. The popular empowerment delegation continuum is an example of intermediate empowerment. The strategy at the intermediate level does not include making organizational or operating model changes. It is primarily focused on driving decision-making down to a lower, more appropriate level: executive to director, director to manager, manager to individual contributor.

3. High empowerment. The key characteristic at this level is the self-directed work team. At this level, entirely self-directed teams take over nearly all of the decisions previously made by their managers. They decide how the work will be done between them, they manage their own budget, they hire and fire, they change processes, they manage their own issues, and they expect their manager to step up in a very substantial way as a facilitator and coach for their professional development.

4. Leading edge. The key characteristic at this level is fluidity. Often there are few or no bosses, and teams form and reform as demands and ideas arise. No one has a boss. Leaders emerge by definition of the fact that others choose to follow them.

In order to target the appropriate level, your senior team must consider your willingness to make changes to the organizational structure, the level of decision-making you are willing to delegate, the role you want your managers to play, how broadly you are willing to define roles and responsibilities, the nature of escalations, the degree and expanse of skills you are willing to develop in your workforce, and your fundamental viewpoint on accountability and risk. This is all in addition to the fundamental question of how effectively each level would support your business strategy.

I anticipate an uptick in the number of organizations focusing attention on empowerment in the coming 2 – 3 years. Most will fail, because most leaders never clearly define their destination. Their empowerment efforts run out of gas, just the way your car would run out of gas if you started driving across the desert toward an undefined destination and just kept on going.

Do the hard work to clearly define your destination now, and you will arrive on time and feeling great, while your competitors stumble along the side of the road, sweating in the unrelenting heat, gas can in hand.