• Mark Newman

Why Empowerment is not Enough

Updated: Aug 16, 2018

Empowerment is one of the cornerstones of organisational agility. When people and teams are empowered, decisions can be made faster – making businesses more responsive to both opportunities and threats. Maybe though, we are occasionally a little superficial when we talk about ‘empowerment’. What do we really mean, and what boundaries are there?

Strategy and culture

Empowerment is at once a strategy, the culture of an organisation, and the practice of individuals. It’s very easy to pay lip service to the need for empowerment, but value will always be limited if empowerment isn’t aligned with strategy and if the organisation’s processes don’t support empowered working. For example, problems will result if teams are empowered and encouraged to achieve their goals, and yet financial reward only recognises individual performance. Empowerment, recognition and reward systems need to work together.

Professional aspiration

Ambition can work for and against effective empowerment. Where competent individuals and teams are empowered, great things can result. The key is that people need to be empowered to make those decisions that they are competent and suitably experienced to make. There is a danger that professional aspiration can hijack empowerment and create political situations when power isn’t framed by appropriate skills and motivation.

Context is all

It’s difficult to talk generically about empowerment without a specific context. In many organisations, an empowered team may comprise perhaps seven co-located professionals working in one room. Now compare that with a complex and highly dispersed multinational! Empowering multiple, dispersed teams that are working on different elements of an integrated product or service is a very different challenge. What can bind these teams together, and allow them to collaborate effectively whilst empowering them to make appropriate decisions?

The Agile paradigm was initially framed around co-located teams. Today it is extending into large organisations that are globalised and virtualised. Teams have to deliver things that integrate with other parts of the organisation. Issues of compatibility and control need to be balanced with the freedom to work in an empowered way. For example, how do we prevent duplication of work across different regional business units? Efficiency can only be achieved through a holistic and organisational perspective.

Transparency and accessibility

Transparency is an essential partner to empowerment. When everyone, leaders and collaborators alike, can ‘go and look’ then the bureaucracy and feeling of being controlled that tends to surround a reporting process is reduced. People are empowered when they have access to the things that matter, and when they are invited to participate and contribute their ideas and views. Empowerment doesn’t mean leaders washing their hands of things. Leaders can empower, and yet stay involved, checking progress and using coaching techniques to guide without being overly directive.

A systems approach

This can all be achieved with a systems approach – one that creates an organisational ecology where individuals and teams are empowered to perform at their best. The structure of an organisation must encourage and not impede empowerment, and it’s a leader’s role to ensure this is so.