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Too Much Empowerment Too Soon? Or Too Little, Too Late?

Posted: 13/11/2012 13:04

Anyone who has had any form of management education or training knows that empowerment is essential to engagement, productivity and job satisfaction. But empowerment also has its risks.

In our own training (at Global Integration), we meet a lot of good people who work for great companies, and many of them feel as if they were empowered too early.

If you are new to a job or organization and you are given too much empowerment, it can feel as if you've been abandoned. It's nice to be trusted, but you also need to know what you should be doing.

It's not fair to an individual or to the organization if we empower people who are not capable of doing the job. Empowerment is not an alternative to giving people the right training and support in the early days.

At its most extreme, I met an individual who was working for an outsourced IT provider. He told me that he arrived on the first day at nine o'clock by, and by 9:30 was operating on a client site, with no further guidance from his new employer. After a month, he still hadn't visited his employer's offices.

Once an individual is capable of doing the job, they have the skills, knowledge and judgement to be successful. Then the focus moves onto building confidence. Confidence cuts both ways: it can be the confidence of the individual to take on more responsibility; it can also be the confidence of the manager to let go.

Most individuals relish the opportunity to take on more responsibility, but let's be honest, some are reluctant, some lack confidence, and a few are even lazy.

From a management point of view, empowerment carries risk. They need to trust the individual concerned and they need to learn to let go. Managers, particularly those from a technical background, have often become successful by being great problem solvers. They think they are being helpful by sharing their experience. Hard-working, skilled and helpful managers can easily become accidental micro-managers. If you work for someone like this is can be frustrating and it is hard to change your boss's behaviours.

The key skill at this stage is coaching. Managers need to be able to coach individuals to reach their own solutions rather than always give the answer.

Individuals should also ask themselves "what have I done to earn the right to be left alone?" What can they do to build confidence and trust from their managers so they can earn higher levels of empowerment?

When we reach this stage, we have built capability through training and have built mutual confidence through coaching. The next step is to take the opportunity to review our support levels. This is our chance to give individuals more empowerment and autonomy, and to relax any controls we have in place. If we don't do this, increasingly capable and confident people will find themselves pressing up against a 'ceiling of control' and this can be frustrating.

In our support discussions, we should discuss taking on additional responsibilities, what information the manager and the individual should provide to each other, and what control measures need to be maintained - every organization has some financial or other controls we need to work within.

If it is common for people who are new to an organization to feel over-empowered, then at this stage it is equally common that people feel they could take on more.

Even the term 'empowerment' carries the assumption that power is naturally the manager's, and that they should choose when to give that power away to someone else. We refer to this as 'conditional empowerment'.

The alternative to this is 'unconditional empowerment'. In this case we assume the individual is empowered to do whatever they feel is necessary, and only call the manager when they feel it really is necessary. This can be challenging for traditional management, and not many companies work that way today, but the idea provides an interesting challenge: how far are we prepared to go with empowerment?

What is your experience in empowerment? Did you get the right level of support when you were new to a job or organization? Do you get enough empowerment now you are more experienced? Do you work for an accidental micro-manager?

 
 
 

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