In yesterday’s Daily Thought I suggested that leadership competence-based systems may be better at providing a language than at creating good leaders. Common language, indeed, is one of the characteristics of a tribe, corporate or otherwise. The beauty of the language is the glue. The liability is the same glue that, in organizational and managerial terms provides a conversational shortcut which decreases the need for critical thinking. In fact, it may increase un-critical thinking. I will explain.
If I say that Jim is not good at empowerment, but very good at delivery, chances are I am bypassing lots of ‘unnecessary explanations’. ‘Everybody knows’ what I am talking about. (Seriously?) The ‘empowerment’ and ‘delivery’ terms produce the shortcuts needed to avoid digging in. Language here, instead of explaining, produces anti-explaining. You and I kid ourselves when we say that ‘we know what we are talking about’ (in fact, we use a lot language such as, ‘I know what you mean Peter’) and fast forward to conclusions, including a management performance score.
There is no way to shape a culture with big conceptual values such as empowerment. They are mind traps that makes us happy (we have a common language) but contribute zero to the shaping of a specific culture, in behavioural terms.
What to do?
Explain exactly what you want to see people do, that when they do it, you are happy to say ‘that’s empowerment’.
Define perhaps two or three of those things, as concretely as you can (e.g. don’t just change the words, from, say, empowerment to devolution).
Agree on those things (now, you can probably call them behaviours).
Abandon the label of ‘empowerment’ as fast as you can and focus on those behaviours exclusively to, say, role model them, copy them, scale them up, and track adoption.
And when people say, by doing ‘those things’ you are perhaps not ‘empowering’ but collaboration, or teamwork, or delegation, or people engagement, or trust, say yes, of course, thanks, good idea. (Translation: the label does not matter anymore as long as you all agree that what people should do is A,B,C).
The way to avoid (never completely) the language trap is to focus on behaviours. Of course if you stay at the level of words, they are not behaviours (yet), just words.
Behaviours, at scale, shape cultures. Concepts such as ‘empowerment’ provide the language, trigger conversations and align people. But they per se don’t create cultures. Translate in behavioural terms and scale. Then we are talking. Well, the real talking.