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The paralysis of empowerment

February 22, 2013

Companies talk of ’empowering’ their employees to make decisions and my definition here was   “Empowerment : the futile delegation of meaningless decision making by a boss to try to make you feel more important.”  Which is certainly something I see.

But recently I have come to see another side of empowerment. When companies really believe they want to put the power back at the sharp end, closer to the customer.  They truly believe their own empowerment mantra and want their underlings to deliver it.

So what do they do?

They roll out a raft of new policies, processes, frameworks, decision trees, codes of conduct, ways of working for everyone to follow when they have to make that all important empowered decision.

What this means in practice is that people are deluged with training requirements and things that once seemed intuitive are taken to new depths of doublechecking and overthinking. People start to doubt their own ability to make any decision at all lest they be caught out contravening some “Guiding principle”. The mountains of meetings, presentations and documentation rolling out this empowerment are littered with “Red Flags” , “Ones to watch out for”, “Mistakes not to make”. Everything is about what you can’t do, not about what you can. This is not empowering for most people. It is paralysing.

Those empowered in this way eventually stop thinking for themselves altogether. They find a path that is acceptable in this brave new world and simply follow that. They know this route will not get them in to trouble, even if it doesn’t get them anywhere exciting,  innovative or rewarding.  The process of “empowerment by protocol” of individuals leads to a compliance with the line of least resistance by the majority.

It allows those with the inclination to say “You can’t do that” far too easily. They become the confident voices as they have the documentation to prove it – “It says here you can’t”. Whereas the creative lateral thinker doesn’t have access to a document from on high saying his or her approach is acceptable, because no one else has thought of it yet. And unfortunately,  in this increasingly risk-averse world, the Safety First approach often wins.  Leaving the company stagnating, making no challenging decisions, showing no leadership in creating a new environment or ways of working and bringing no disruptive forces to shake up the status quo.

Real empowerment comes not from being told you are empowered and this is how to do it, it comes from having knowledge and real understanding of what you want to do and the environment you operate in, and being supported to try to get there.

Oh, that sounds a bit like having experience doesn’t it? And that’s something that can’t simply be learnt from a decision-making manual or devolved from on high.
That’s something you actually have to do for yourself.

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2 Responses to “The paralysis of empowerment”

  1. Another Sarah Says:

    Empowerment = taking risks and getting things wrong….way out of the corporate comfort zone. That’s why they use consultants


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