Empowerment in any workplace starts with leadership. It has to because at its essence, empowerment is a transfer of power from a leader in authority to someone lower down in the organisation chart.
When the leader is able to unleash the power of the many, they create what an American leadership thinker and MIT guru Deborah Ancona calls “collective genius” –and that’s when organisations become truly innovative and can truly achieve peak performance.
Genuine cultures of empowerment can only come about when leaders realise that empowerment isn’t an act of benevolence toward those lower down the pecking order than them. Empowerment is an act of collegiality on the part of leaders that involves relying on others to make up for your own weaknesses and restrictions.
So as HR leaders within your organisations, one of your greatest challenges is to get the senior leaders you work with to embrace the fact that they are incomplete leaders. To realise that the moment they embrace their weaknesses, they actually begin to emphasise their strengths.
We expect to be asked for and listened to
That’s when true empowerment is able to begin. Every great leadership thinker in the world agrees that this all starts with listening.
Listening has always been important for leaders. And it’s getting even more important. It used to be that some command and control bosses could get away without really listening. But in a world where having a workforce of empowered individuals is important, then it’s utterly critical.
10-15 years ago, maybe you could dictate to your staff and they would grin and bear it. But not anymore. We’re living in a different world where our expectations of how we will be treated in the workplace have changed. It’s a reflection of a fundamental shift in our culture that has been born of our networked world that’s profoundly interconnected and informed – you know the story – smart devices, the net, social media platforms. We’re always in touch.
It’s causing a shift in power relationships between individuals and institutions of power,away from strict hierarchies towards flatter power relationships. If we don’t like the service we’re given, we email the CEO of the company. And we expect a reply, or else we’ll broadcast our discontent to our social media networks.
Sometimes people tell me that these are the demands of the new millennial employees. I disagree. I think they are the basic expectations of most people in workplaces today. From baby boomers through gen x to gen y.
When we have a strong opinion at work, the new normal is that we expect it to be asked for and listened to. And if we aren’t listened to, then we’re far more likely to walk out the door and go work for someone who will listen.
That means building a workplace culture of empowerment based around the three Cs -Control Competence and Connection is not just a nice to have any more. It’s the table stakes just to play the game.
Leadership by involvement
For the HR profession this has profound implications. It means HR professionals must raise their sights on the level of influence they have on their organisations.
HR has one great mission right now - leading the shift from twentieth century management philosophy to twenty-first century leadership thinking. We call it leading the shift from old school management by engagement - to leadership by involvement.
Management by engagement is all about creating a culture where your staff are happy to be instructed what to do. Leadership by involvement is about creating cultures where your team members have real control. They’re motivated to, and capable of working out what’s the best thing to do next, without needing to be told or having to ask permission.
Leadership by involvement is about seeing competence as problem-solving abilities, not just specific skill acquisition. Managing for engagement is about looking backwards -training your workforce to deal with a finite set of possibilities. Leading through involvement is about looking forward -it’s about making sure your workforce is up-skilled and empowered to solve any number of problems.
Leadership by involvement creates a deeper connection between the workforce and the organisation. Someone who practices management by engagement only ever asks “do you like your job?” By contrast someone who practices leadership by involvement asks their team members “do you understand what our purpose is?” and then they ask, “what could you do to help us achieve our goals more effectively?” “what should we change?”
If you’re serious about changing the culture of your organisation to emphasise empowerment, you can start by finding out:
Do people feel that they have control?
Do they feel that they’re competent?
Do they feel connected?
All these things can be affected by the behaviour of managers, but it’s important to remember that empowerment isn’t a set of management practices. It’s a state of mind that lives in the heads of your front-line team members.