Empowerment … You Keep Using That Word


In today’s workplace, businesses are trying to do everything they can to wring the last bit of “engagement” out of their employees. Not that every business really understands what engagement means, but they know they want it. And they think they need it. And let’s face it, most employees say they want to feel connected to their work – to feel like they’re making a difference. Which, to them, is probably a form of engagement.

And yet, the numbers for overall employee engagement have pretty much remained unchanged since the turn of the millennium. This, despite the fact that companies seem to be paying more and more attention to the concept of engagement. They survey their employees to death. They talk about the importance of engagement to the employee experience. They fret over the fact that nothing they seem to do is making a difference.

So what do businesses decide? They will “empower” their people.

People will be “empowered” to make decisions at work. They will be “empowered” to speak up with new ideas. Employees will also be “empowered” to act when the integrity of the organization is at stake.

There. Don’t you feel engaged now?

The issue isn’t that organizations aren’t SAYING the right things. The issue is that organizations aren’t DOING the right things. Employees who are told they are empowered to innovate are shot down when they bring their ideas to their leadership. Leaders who are told they are empowered to reward their employees are told they need to be more aware of “what it looks like” when a team goes out to lunch on a Friday. And workers who are told they are empowered to get the right tools for the work they do are forced to wade through an insane approval process just to get office supplies.

In short, “empowerment” doesn’t seem to mean what these organizations think it means.

If leaders really want to empower their employees, they’ll stop thinking of it as an initiative and recognize that it, like engagement, is a natural outcome of a workplace that functions with trust. In “Firms of Endearment,” the authors contest that organizations that create a “participation culture” in which managers elicit suggestions and work from their people and give up some control realize higher earnings than the S&P 500 and the “Good to Great” organizations.

In other words, hire smart, talented people and get out of their way.

If you truly want “empowerment” in your organization, here are just a few simple steps to get there:

  • Give up some control to the people who actually do the work: See above.
  • Define the boundaries of what is and is not OK: Industries are regulated to some extent. Make sure everyone knows the regulations and does the right thing.
  • Create a feedback loop: It’s not enough to ask employees what they think you should do. You have to get back to them on what you actually will do, and why.
  • Reward the right behaviors: That means you not only reward people who do awesome stuff. You also reward leaders and employees who take a smart risk – who were willing to fail so that someone else could learn from it.

Next time you hear the term “empower” in your organization, cut out this card and hand it to them:

That way you can be sure they know the real meaning of the word. And if the person who said “empower” does anything contrary to the above definition, throw something at them*.

Because they’re doing it wrong.

*Note: The author does not condone violence in the workplace. Unless you throw a foam brick. And then it’s totally funny.

(Faulkner will present “The Myth of Empowerment” as part of “The Organization of the Future” content track at WorkHuman, May 30-June 1 in Phoenix.) 

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Mary Faulkner Mary Faulkner (1 Posts)

Faulkner is a talent strategist and business leader with almost 15 years experience in helping organizations achieve their goals. After working on the operations side of start-ups and small companies, Faulkner landed in HR by way of learning and development, with extensive experience in leadership and organizational development, coaching, key talent planning, talent acquisition, performance management, business partnering, HRIS, process and policy creation, and instructional design.

In addition to her work within companies, Faulkner authors a leadership development blog called Surviving Leadership (www.survivingleadership.blog) to continue the dialogue around the challenges of leadership – both being a leader AND being led.