Like many corporate buzzwords, empowerment is a term whose original meaning is now smudged and barely discernible, due to overuse. Just to clarify, here's my definition:
Empowering employees means cultivating a team that thinks freely and acts in fresh ways to accomplish your firm's fundamental objectives while staying within intended parameters.
Have you ever been involved in an endeavor that that seems like it should be getting somewhere, but instead it's going nowhere, while negativity is lurking everywhere? That's a good description of a situation where people lack empowerment. I hope you're not going through this right now... but if you are, I hope you're the one in charge of the mess. Because I have a strategy for you that might help.
Tell Your Team The Whole Story
"I think I see the problem, and it's in two parts," I said. "Just now you've been talking to me about processes. But you haven't talked about purpose. If you're hitting your people with all the structural change, you need to be crystal clear about what you hope to accomplish. People may understand what you want them to do, but until they know what you're hoping to achieve, they can't feel part of it."
I then asked my friend to tell me all of the goals he had for his pet program. As he talked, I took notes. I came up with four main concepts.
1. The new approach would alleviate bottlenecks by allowing people to share work in ways that they couldn't before. This would make the organization more nimble and responsive to market needs.
2. The different workflows would make it possible to increase the quality of the end product by making sure there were more quality checks along the way and opening up more channels for quality improvement.
3. The new system would provide continuous training to deepen and broaden peoples' skill sets, so that they would be able to contribute more to the process and grow professionally.
4. The restructuring would pave the way for a long-awaited company expansion into an additional location.
I asked my friend if he had voiced any of these benefits to the people with whom he'd shared his restructuring plans. He looked at me sharply. "No. They're obvious, aren't they?"
Downed Power Lines
This true story illustrates a communications problem that many leaders unknowingly have. And it's a real roadblock to growth. Just as companies need more electric power lines as they invest in more machinery, they need more lines of communication as they invest in more people and their organizational layers get more complex. But those lines of communication have to transmit power, not static. And when you just tell your people the what, and not the why, it's as though you're sending static through the line.
Management is great at making up new rules. Rules are where they live. Rules are what they focus on. Rules are easy to state. They feel great going out of the gate: "Here you go! New rules!" Then management sits back and waits for the people to do what they're told.
And that's the problem. The best case scenario in a rules-only communication is that people will merely do what they're told. But in a rules-only environment, even that modest scenario becomes harder and harder to achieve. (Ideally, employees should feel free to go beyond mere rule-following to exceed expectations, but with rules-only communication, that's out of the question. More about that next week.)
When rules are stated, but not followed 100%, bosses can feel betrayed. But what management needs to realize is: Rules Run On Reasons. If you only tell people what to do, and they are excluded from seeing the bigger picture, they will not feel empowered. They will only feel ambushed.
Let me explain by way of an example. Suppose I'm your boss, and I tell you, "Draw a circle." You do, Then I say, "It's not big enough." You draw another one. I say, "Now it's too big. I need it to be seven and a half inches in diameter." So you get a ruler, a compass, and painstakingly construct a circle with the correct diameter. "All right, but I need it to be cut out," I say. You get scissors and cut out your paper circle. I look at it, then I take a paper plate from behind my back and say, "Can you sort of bend it up along the edges? It should really look more like this."
As an employee, how are you feeling right now? Aren't you seething to yourself, "Why didn't my boss just show me the paper plate in the first place?" That's exactly how employees feel when they are trying to follow rules without a bigger picture. When humans feel uninformed, they feel unmotivated. And when they feel unmotivated, their own inner voice starts a destructive dialogue that becomes a distraction: "What are those idiots in the back office up to now? How do they expect me to do this? Why can't they come out here and see what we're up against?" Polarization sets in. The static becomes so powerful, the lines of communication are now barely working at all.
Managers often make the mistake of assuming that people know the reasons behind the rules. But the truth is, they don't. The first step in empowering your people is to give them all the context behind what you're telling them to do. That's a great way to decrease polarization and increase partnership.
Rules without reasons don't work. You can push that button on the blender all you want, but if it's not plugged into the wall outlet, there's no smoothie in your future. In the same way, you can tell your staff to do something over and over again, but if they don't see the reason behind it, your pleas just seem pushy, and the only thing that gets empowered is their resentment.
Today I close with a poem, because oddly enough, one just occurred to me.
What plans are in play at your workplace today?
If asked, could you say you've explained them okay?
Clear reasons must fuel
Every order and rule,
Or people's resentment will get in the way.
Next Monday: the three things you need to make clear about every thing you tell your staff to do.