The ‘expectations muddle’ of empowerment has different shapes and flavours:
- I expect you to do something but you don’t think you are empowered to do.
- I empower you to do something (I have decided it is good to empower you) but you don’t want to be empowered (too much responsibility?)
- I am told that delegation is good, so I delegate, but call it empowerment. But I am just passing the monkey on to you.
- I empower you, you think I am abdicating.
- I don’t have permission to do, or I think I don’t have, I feel I am not empowered, but you never thought you needed to give me permission.
- You are empowered! Here you are! Take it. What? (Is he ok?)
- Empowering you means you need to behave as if you were the owner of the business (does it mean I can have your bonus?)
- We are all empowered, for goodness sake, just take accountability for things!
- I am empowering you to be empowered, but not too much, because I will lose control.
- I am told to let it go, so I am empowering you, but you don’t believe me for a second, because you know me. So I may have to do something more than just saying it.
- You are empowered. Please report to me weekly on the hitting of milestones, number of KPIs and times you took a break.
- I can’t empower everybody, it would be a disaster.
The above 12 list contain these keywords, all conveniently used when and as needed contributing to the intrinsic muddle of the territory of empowerment: empowerment, wanted to be, thinking you are, delegation, abdications, monkey traffic, permission, ownership, accountability, control, let it go.
No wonder we can go for days and weeks ‘discussing empowerment’ without reaching anywhere serious. The conceptual discussion is messy and difficult. The only way to unbundle this is to descend to the behavioural side: what do you want to see in the environment (that people do, don’t do) that you can say ‘this is a culture of empowerment’?
The culture is, will be, will feel, completely different if your (collective) view of empowerment is for example delegation, or passing the monkey, or simply accountability taken.
The real, true, unique, powerful, core ingredient underneath this discussion has one word: control. That is, how much you have, need to have, should have, and their mirrors, how much you can lose, want to lose.
If you frame a discussion about empowerment you need to start by acknowledging the conceptual muddle, and then peeling the onion until you get to the core. Then, there, at that core, it will be control, will feel control, will smell control. That is the issue. And if it is, your discussion has now a different label. Address control, forget the rest (unless the discussion takes place over a few glasses of wine, in which case, conceptual muddle thrives in such a fertile territory)