The essence of empowerment is to cultivate the conditions where a person gives attention to and constructs their intent on the possibility of being here to give. In any situation, one can either construct one’s intent on what you’re getting or on what you are giving. When you base your intent on what you want to get, you’re constructing your intent on something that you do not have power over. Because that which you want sits in the power somebody else. It makes them strong and you weak.
On the other hand, if you base your intent on what you can contribute, you are basing your intent on what you have control over and what sits in your power. Which means that you become powerful. The essence of empowerment therefore must be to cultivate a person’s intent to be here to give. And to make it possible for them to behave consistently with that intent.
Autonomy and empowerment
It is also important to bear in mind that there must be a relationship between autonomy and empowerment. A person who cannot decide because they’re under the control of somebody else cannot be considered to be empowered. It is only a person who has the autonomy to act, who can be considered to have power over their own condition. Therefore, they can be considered to be empowered. In this sense, a person who has autonomy to act therefore will not blame others. Rather, they will take accountability for their action. They will know that what sits in their own hands, is their own personal accountability. To conclude: people who are here to give, are people who accept accountability, have the autonomy to give, and can therefore be considered to be empowered.
The relationship between empowerment and control
The word empowerment implies as much a process as it does a state. It is true to say that people can become more empowered. As we’ve already observed, there’s an inverse relationship between empowerment and control. This suggests that there’s also an incremental process of suspension of control that facilitates empowerment. This is indeed intuitively true.
As people grow and become mature, they are considered to be more autonomous. Furthermore, they are considered to be more accountable for their actions. They correspondingly have less control imposed on them. This suggests that a leader, who is an empowering leader, will not necessarily start a relationship with a subordinate or a team with no control. Rather, they would commence the relationship with an appropriate level of control. This is while considering the level of maturity of members of the team. Thus, would incrementally suspend the control in order to facilitate the growth of the members of the team.
This suggests that empowerment is concerned with an incremental suspension of control. In each incremental step of suspending control, there is an intuitively sound logic. This enables the leader to make a reasoned call with regard to the empowerment of a team or a subordinate. This logic is demonstrated by the metaphor; if you give a man a fish you, feed him for a day, and if you teach him to fish he feeds himself for the rest of his life. There are some useful implications to what empowerment means from this fishing analogy.
Accountability and empowerment
If one wanted to empower somebody to fish, one would provide the person with all the means that they need in order to fish. These means would include fishing rod, line, a hook, a sinker, some bait, possibly a license and so on. These are all elements that sit outside of the person. Which is why we refer to these things as means. You can consider these to be consistent with the hardware to be able to do the job.
Further to the means, you would also need to teach the person how to fish. You would need to teach them how to cast, how to bait a hook, how to find bait, know where to cast and so on. You would also need to teach the person why they should be doing this fishing thing. They would need to know that they would be able to feed themselves and their families by doing this fishing.
The ability and accountability
This second category one could call ability. It is to teach the person both how to do what is required of them. Furthermore, why they should do it. However, giving a person the means and the ability to do what’s required of them does not fully account for an empowered person. If, for example, you gave me all the means and the ability I could require to catch the fish and you then said to me “Don’t worry if you don’t catch a fish, I’ll give you one from my freezer” I would not be likely to fish willingly. This suggests that the last thing you need to bring to the party that engages my will is the bloody mindedness to tell me “If you don’t catch a fish after this, starve!” It would be to hold me accountable for what I have been entrusted to do.
This suggests that empowering somebody means three things. Not just two. It means to give a person the means, the ability, and the accountability to do what’s required of them. If you don’t do all three those things, you do not empower a person – you disable them. Empowerment without accountability is no empowerment at all.
In an organizational setting these three elements of empowerment would correspond to the following:
The idea of means is to:
- Give a person the tools to do what’s required of them
- The authority to do what’s required of them
- The information they may need to do what’s required of them
- The resources they may need to do what’s required of them
- The boss’s time.
Just like a coach cannot coach a game he or she is not watching, so too you cannot cultivate, grow, or empower people you do not give attention to.
Consistent with the idea of ability is to teach people how and why they should do what is required of them. The how is a reasonably straightforward matter. However, the why is a bit more challenging. We have already said that the fundamental deliverable of an empowerment process is the intent of the individual to give. What that means in terms of how we understand the intent or the purpose of an organization becomes apparent if you consider the following thought experiment.
Benevolent intent and empowerment
Assume you are an operator in a pharmaceutical manufacturing business. Your boss asks you to work very hard at making the drugs. Because if you do, you will make a shareholder on the Stock Exchange shamefully rich. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that you would commit to the job. Because you will feel used. If, however, your boss asks you to work very hard at making these drugs because if you do, you will save many lives in the world. You’d be far more willing to commit to making these drugs.
This is because you would see the contribution you are making. Furthermore, you would feel like you are giving something by doing what you do. One can refer to this issue as the as defining a benevolent intent to the enterprise. It is only a benevolent intent to the enterprise which gives people a reason to act for something bigger than their self-interest, be here to make a contribution, and therefore be empowered.
The issue of accountability is concerned with applying consistent rewards and punishments for people’s performance against a standard. Clearly, you cannot hold somebody accountable if there isn’t a clear standard for what is required of them. This suggests that somebody’s performance can either be above standard or below standard.
If somebody’s performance is above standard, it can be above standard in one of two ways. Firstly, they can either be going the extra mile. In which case it is appropriate to reward the person. Secondly, they could be doing what is required of them to standard. In which case it is appropriate to recognize them.
A person’s performance can be below standard for one of two reasons. Either they are either deliberately malevolent. In which case it is appropriate to dismiss them. Or they could be careless and therefore not be performing to standard. In the second instance it is appropriate to warn the person. And this warning is not in the spirit of coaching the person, it is in the spirit of applying progressive discipline. This suggests that if the person does not change their ways they will also get dismissed.
The hard and the soft mistakes
In this process of empowerment one can make one or of two mistakes. We refer to these two mistakes as the hard mistake or the soft mistake. The hard mistake is to treat means and ability issues as if they are accountability issues. For example, you’ve got somebody working for you who you either have not given the means or you have not made them able to do what is required of them. Not surprisingly, their performance is below standard. If you then dismiss the person or warn the person this is clearly too harsh. It is unjust. This can therefore be described as the hard mistake.
The soft mistake happens when you treat accountability issues as if they are means and ability issues. For example, you have somebody working for you who has all the means to do what’s required of them. And furthermore, they’re perfectly able to do what’s required of them, and their performance is still below standard. If you then send them on a course, coach them, or even change the standard of what’s required of them, that is called to make the soft mistake. Clearly, their problem is an accountability issue. And you are dealing with the accountability issue as if it is a means or an ability issue.
While both of these are mistakes, the soft mistake is worse than the hard mistake. The reason for this is that the soft mistake is the equivalent of leaving of the rotten apple in the barrel. It produces a slide of standards through the group that encourages people to act consistently with the lowest common denominator. The second problem that is associated with the soft mistake is that it encourages an incremental growth of control.
Holding people appropriately accountable
For example, let’s assume that you are a member of a team in an organization where every member of the team at your level is entrusted with a credit card to spend on company business. All of the members of the team have been trained to use this card, know what they can spend the money on, and know how to reconcile the credit card account with the company accounts at the end of the month.
One of the members of the team decides to use his credit card to buy a holiday for himself and his entire extended family to the Maldives. In similar cases, I’ve seen a reaction of horror in the organization that the person abused their credit card. The consequence is that the person is sent on a corporate governance course and the credit cards are taken away from everybody else. By not holding the person who misbehaved accountable, the leader is backed into a corner. Now, the only alternative is to impose a control, which ends up punishing everybody else in the team.
If you do not hold people appropriately accountable, then the effect over a period of time is that rather than suspending control, which would be consistent with the empowerment of people, you would have an incremental growth of control. Once again, without accountability there can be no empowerment.
The five steps to empowerment
If one wanted to apply all the insights we’ve articulated above in a step by step process for the incremental suspension of control and empowerment of people the following five steps provide a useful guide:
Step 1: Identify the next step:
Be very clear about the standard of what is going to be required of the person in the next iteration of the incremental suspension of control.
Step 2: Train people to take that step, both why and how:
Be sure that when you train people you do not just train them how to do what’s required of them, but consistent with the idea of benevolent intent be very sure that you also cover the issue of why they should do what is required of them. That they have a line of sight between what they do at work and the contribution the organization makes in the world.
Step 3: Test ability, both why and how:
From one point of view, testing how is a reasonably straightforward matter that could imply the person practically demonstrating that they can adhere to the standard required of them in executing the task. Testing the why, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated because you need to hear back from the person the significance of what they’re being entrusted with and that it’s probably best done in a conversation or possibly in text.
Step 4: Hand over the means:
By handing over the means is meant all the means that would be required for the person to be able to execute the job to standard. This will include things such as the tools to do the job, the resources to do the job, and most importantly the authority to do the job.
Step 5: Hold the person accountable:
The purpose of steps one to four is to deliver an accountable person at the end of the process. The process of empowerment is not complete until the person is being recognized, rewarded, censured or punished consistently with the standard what’s required of them.
Empowerment means to cultivate people who accept accountability for their performance. Furthermore, they are here to contribute, can be trusted to do what’s required of them and need not be controlled. This happy condition is not an absolute. But is incrementally cultivated through the incremental suspension of control. Each one of these steps of the suspension of control can be handled in terms of the five steps we’ve described above.
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