Self-Empowerment–What it REALLY Means: Are You Buzzed or Bulldozed?
Has your boss, or a previous one, ever said to you something along the lines of: “I’m empowering you to get this job done.” Or have you in a managerial or supervisory capacity ever said something similar to a direct report?If yes in either or both cases, how did you feel? As a direct report, did you actually FEEL empowered? Or was your internal response, “yeah, right!” As a manager did making such a statement serve as a stimulant, providing a false sense of power and authority?Let’s be honest, NO ONE can empower anyone else. In the words of Harrison Owen, leadership author and creator of Open Space Technology, “If I empower you, to some extent you are still within my power.” These are wise words I’ve valued for almost 15 years since first reading them in one of Owen’s books.
One of the principal roles of managerial leadership (those in management positions who also play the necessary accompanying leadership roles) is to create the workplace conditions and space for people to carry out their responsibilities. As a sidebar, you can read an excerpt from my 3rd edition Becoming a Holistic Leader e-book where I talk about the complementary relationship between leadership and management. The e-book is a free download.
When we talk about employees being creative, innovative and customer focused, then it raises the bar when it comes to how managers help bring out the best in people. Saying to someone, “I’m empowering you, Frank, to provide exemplary customer service,” or “I’m empowering you, Sheila, to be creative” is, to be frank, absolute bullshit. In reality, it’s an attempted power trip by the manager.
If, on the other hand, the manager said to Frank, “What can I do to help you in your work? What are some of the obstacles blocking you from providing the best possible service to our customers?” then that’s a different ball of wax. The same applies to helping provide Sheila with the appropriate conditions in her work.
However, to be fair and realistic to management there’s a reciprocity that exists. This is where the aspect of self-empowerment enters the scene. Even when a manager understands how to draw the best from her staff, not everyone will reciprocate.
As a new manager over 25 years ago, I gradually learned that while I had positional authority I had in fact little power. If I wanted to create a client-focused unit I was going to have to create the conditions for extraordinary things to happen. After falling down several times on my face as I made mistakes, things started to click and the energy in my unit was palpable. And we earned the reputation as being truly client-focused. However, it took a while and a lot of hard work, not just by me but the entire team, to reach this state of being.
In terms of the reciprocity aspect, there were always a couple of people in my unit over several years who were not as buzzed as everyone else. Self-empowerment is a PERSONAL decision and choice. Either someone decides to take that step or remain rooted in existing behavior. If the individual hates their job then self-empowerment is indeed a tall mountain to climb.
So the next time you start to talk to your staff about how you’re going to empower them, bite your tongue. Instead, start by asking a few questions about how to improve your workplace and its products or services. Then zip your lip and listen carefully and openly to what your colleagues have to say. And above all, be patient. Trust and self-empowerment were not built in a day.
You can and should shape your own future; because if you don’t someone else surely will. (Joel Barker)
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