Empowerment is not the answer

About 18 months ago, I was working as an agile coach consulting to a large corporate, and I was somewhat in crisis. I’d been asked to be an agent of change in an environment where people had stopped believing they could influence their world of work. I’d realised after a few months that where it really mattered, they weren’t wrong. The autonomy and influence people thought they had, had actually never existed. Improvement meetings had become venting sessions. My role had shifted from trusted advisor to trusted counsellor. I was deeply questioning what it would take to reignite the passion I’d seen once before.

Then, one night on my way home from work, I was listening to Bruce Whitfield’s show on 702, and it was as though he had read my mind. We hate our jobs, but it’s not our fault (and it needn’t be this way)”, he said. Bruce had invited Ian Mann to discuss a new book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux, and the introduction sounded a little too familiar. Disengagement. Power games. Systems beating individuals. A never-ending succession of change and cost-cutting programmes. That about summed up what I was noticing at work.

I ordered the book that same evening, but it took more than a year and a complete change in work environment before I felt ready to start reading it. That said, I’m not going to use this blog to unpack the book itself. Rather, I want to focus on how the book inspired me to reflectively see why, in my previous work scenario, nothing was ever going to change significantly. As discouraging as that may sound, power (or the mysterious distribution thereof) was the one non-obvious but constant obstacle.

I want to talk about empowerment for a moment. Today’s organisations seem to have become obsessed with empowerment. It’s a strong theme in employee engagement surveys and leadership training programmes. But here’s the problem I have with empowerment: it’s really fragile. Empowerment is conditional on the person who empowers another (or his/her replacement in the future) consistently and continuously, honouring the agreement, even when under pressure and feeling tempted to take back control.

For the unenlightened leader, empowering with confidence requires enormous quantities of trust and maybe even psychic ability. Unenlightened leaders empower in contexts where mistakes aren’t expensive and won’t reflect badly on their leadership. They solve problems behind closed doors. They request feedback out of politeness, but discard people’s ideas or concerns because, truth be told, the decision was made weeks earlier and it’s already been communicated at a higher level. I have seen this behaviour countless times in large, hierarchical organisations, and I’ve seen energy levels of high-performing people dissipate as a result.

In contrast, enlightened organisations (and I’ve worked in some) hire smart people and bring challenges of all sizes to the attention of all employees, no matter how long they’ve been in the company and no matter the role they play. Enlightened organisations know that if the needs of the organisation are put out there, the responsible adults will figure out what needs to be done. What’s more, when people feel valued and trusted, they tend to put in more energy, effort, and time. They even start to take on more responsibility. I have experienced a kind of transformation personally through working in enlightened organisations, and it has influenced my way of work considerably. Today, I don’t aspire to be a leader. Rather I aspire to help build a culture where the right problems to solve are well understood, and where people support each other, rather than give each other permission to solve them.

It might be tempting to believe that enlightened organisations get the best out of people because they have figured out how empowerment works. Not exactly. Enlightened organisations have worked out how to make everyone in an organisation powerful. It’s a subtle but fundamental difference made possible quite often by removing layers of management and putting the right controls and heuristics in place. In an interview with Laloux after his book was published, he said “People bring tremendous energy to work, because they feel powerful, because they can be fully themselves, show up with all of who they are, and serve a noble purpose. How could this lead to anything but extraordinary results?”

So, where has all this left me?

It’s allowed me to make more sense of the environment I was in 18 months ago. The lack of motivation surrounding me at that time Laloux describes as “a devastating side effect of the unequal distribution of power”, and in my view, this was and still is perpetuated by unenlightened leaders. Fortunately, I’m now in a far healthier environment, with plenty of potential for enlightenment.

I’m not about to start a movement in my department for self-directing teams without leaders. Not yet, anyway. I’m simply trying to be more observant of how power is distributed. I want to make the permission structures more transparent, and from there I will advocate for a change – in mindset and language – from permission to advice. My hypothesis is that people have more power than they perceive, and extraordinary results are just around the corner. But, before I get carried away, it’s time to get some advice…

by Candice Herodotou



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