Empowerment Failures

Empowerment Failures

As a technology executive and company founder for over 35 years, I have drunk the empowerment Kool-Aid and found it wanting.

Wikipedia defines Empowerment as:

"The term empowerment refers to measures designed to increase the degree of autonomy and self-determination in people and in communities in order to enable them to represent their interests in a responsible and self-determined way, acting on their own authority. It is the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one's life and claiming one's rights. Empowerment as action refers both to the process of self-empowerment and to professional support of people, which enables them to overcome their sense of powerlessness and lack of influence and to recognize and use their resources. To do work with power."

Wikipedia on Empowerment

Sure sounds great. By empowering your employees, you create a team that provides people with space to create, innovate, and optimizes every business decision. You obtain the most from every member of your staff.

Unfortunately, it does not work. I have hired hundreds of people over the past 30 years. During this time I have run companies with a handful of employees and with hundreds of employees. I have worked with talented people that are self-taught and that have MBAs and PhDs. My experience is that empowerment creates unrealistic expectations, slows decision making to a crawl, and leaves most people unfulfilled. It accomplishes the exact opposite of what you need to succeed in today's high-velocity business world.

Most leaders that talk about empowerment mandate empowerment top down. Who is that empowering?

When empowering employees, we push responsibility down as far as possible into an organization creating the myth that all employees opinions are equally valued. The result is employees become disenfranchised when excluded from a decision, they demand increasing transparency that may be harmful to the companies future, and they focus too much energy on topics outside of their responsibilities and expertise.

What is the alternative? Enable success instead of empowering success.

Many academics focused on management strategies of high performing companies emphasize empowerment. However, when reviewing the most successful high growth companies, we can generally identify a strong leader with a tight hand on the tiler. Yes, these leaders may talk about empowerment, but their actions tell a different story. Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple, Elan Musk of multiple companies all examples of a strong leader who built organizations that enabled success vs. empowering employees.

I propose that instead of empowering employees as managers we should enable employees. Our job as leaders is to create a path to success for every member of our team. We cannot do that by handing a new college graduate a blank sheet of paper and empowering them to own their job. Instead, we maximize our companies success and each team members success by defining a set of clear goals, a clear path, and a finite number of choices for our direct reports. We define strategy and enable our direct reports to select and execute tactics. These same direct reports define the strategy for their level of the organization and allow their team members to choose and implement tactics.

Other than the CEO every member of an organization with direct reports has a strategic component of their job and a tactical execution component. The dual responsibilities to strategy and tactics apply to both very flat organizations where all team leaders report to the CEO and deep organizations with many levels. We must stop apologizing for asking team members new to the organization, fresh to the team or new to a role to focus first on tactics and execution and to trust that their leaders are defining an effective strategy.

As a leader, it is important to solicit input as part of strategic decision making. Proper status reporting and periodic team meetings should be used to surface questions about the strategy without creating an expectation that strategy creation is a responsibility of the whole group.

Focusing on strategy at the team leader level and tactics within the team, we avoid over-managing our direct reports while creating a path to success. By limiting strategic decision-making to the manager or managers of a level and the selection and execution of tactics to the team we keep the decision-making process to small groups. We eliminate employee dissatisfaction due to an unrealistic expectation that everyone should be involved in every decision. We maximize employee growth through tactical successes that lead to responsibility for strategic decisions within their level of the organization.

Jeff Bezos 2 pizza rule has highlighted the power of enablement and small manageable teams. This well-reported rule at Amazon "never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn't feed the entire group" keeps decisions focused within a small group and enables team members outside of the leadership to focus on execution. It eliminates the "everyone must be in every meeting" empowerment disease. Enabling an employees success requires a manager to limit the employee's focus which supports clarifying an employees path to success.

At Apple secrecy is baked into the fabric of the organization. A side effect of secrecy is the need to keep teams small. Organizing Apple around small groups provides tremendous tactical flexibility and alignment with Steve Jobs top-down strategy. Steve Jobs may have talked about empowerment but requiring your designers to get approval for the color of a computer is not empowering. Each focused product team operates independently eliminating the need for unruly decision-making processes.

Steve Jobs stated, “Teamwork is dependent on trusting the other folks to come through with their part without watching them the whole time.” When you attempt to empower every employee in a company you create an environment where everyone is watching each other instead of concentrating on their job. This is just micromanagement by committee. Much worse than top-down micromanagement. By building trust in a team that your leaders will define an appropriate strategy you enable success in the organization.

In "The Age of Agile" Stephen Denning writes that when faced with complex problems "Instead of scaling up the organization to resolve a complex problem, Apple scaled down the problem into tiny bite-sized pieces that small independent teams could deliver in an iterative fashion..."

This approach focuses the team on tactics, maximizes the likelihood of success, and provides each team member a path to success.

An essential requirement of employee enablement is timely reporting. By requiring daily or at a minimum weekly reporting about objectives met and the next period's objectives a manager guides tactical execution without micro-managing execution. If it is your responsibility as a manager to enable employee success you need to know what every team member is accomplishing and where they are struggling to facilitate this success.

It is best to implement reporting via an iterative process. Begin with each new team members by requiring end of day status reporting. The act of writing a bulleted status report will help the new team member focus and understand their responsibilities. As you gain confidence in your ability to communicate assignments and the team members ability to understand your objectives move to twice weekly and then weekly status reporting.

As managers, we enable employee success by:

  • Making strategic decisions for our team that align with our co-managers strategic choices.
  • Clearing defining the goals, objectives and career plan for each team member.
  • Focusing your team members on a finite set of objective.
  • Enable team members to select and execute tactics.
  • Monitor these tactics with regular status reporting.
  • Measure and publicise tactical successes that align with strategic objectives.
  • Promote successful team members with tactical achievements to leadership positions where they will make strategic decisions for their team.

As a reader of this blog post, I propose that we start a movement to replace empowerment with enablement, large teams with small teams, unruly meetings because everyone thinks they need to be in every meeting with focused meetings. I propose we measure a managers success by the progress each of their team members make towards their personal goal.

I am interested in your thoughts about enablement vs. empowerment. Feel free to comment on this post.