This is the last one in the series of 10 Organizational Pathologies, and the longest write up. Sorry! Bear with me.
Please challenge me on this assumption if you wish, but at least follow my argument.
Managers and leaders say that they empower people when they give them permission (with the associated accountability) to do things that are not in their job description, that they are not supposed to do. If these things were in their job descriptions, we would not call that empowerment, it would be simply pointing to people things that they should do because it is their duty. Managers then would be simply managing, not empowering. Can we agree?
So empowering others is transferring to them three things: new responsibilities, risks, and maybe (maybe) rewards in success. That people could be penalized for failing in things that they are not supposed to do but are given to them (empowered to do), is a conversation that we tend to avoid.
For empowerment is always broadcast as a good thing. Talking risks would contaminate it too much. And if you did, you would bring along all sorts of health warnings. As a client senior manager told me a while ago, he wanted his people to ‘take risks but be prudent’, a kind of safe sex for management.
What I find fascinating is that if risk is transferred to the empowered, that risk must come from somewhere. It must have had a different home, usually the one of the manager who is empowering. It’s… risk transfer.
The great mind, controversial trader/philosopher/writer, Nassim Taleb, who has that ability to annoy most intellectuals, academics, and people who have no ‘skin in the game’, defines the latter as having a share of the consequences of your own behaviours. For example, he would say, an adviser that advises but is shielded from any possible negative consequences of his advice, has no skin in the game. And this is the title of his latest book. Taleb’s thinking behind this is ‘the asymmetries’, or lack of them, of those consequences in life. He puts those advisers, people who dictate the invasion of countries (‘interventionists’) and bankers who produced vast misery attributed to ‘unexpected market events’, all of them not bearing any personal consequence, in the same basket: no skin in the game.
In Taleb’s terms (this is my interpretation) a manager who empowers others (in my terms above), who passes risks on, but has no potential share in the consequences of failure; who will not be impacted, or at least not significantly (or as much as the empowered fellow), has no skin in the game. It’s asymmetrical unfairness.
Since empowerment is greatly and naively glorified as a solution for all organizational ills, the manager who empowers always wins (as good manager, good role model, good delegator). If things go wrong, the magic organizational deity called ‘they’ comes down to earth: they failed, they took too much risk (of yours?), they did not understand, they did not take the right empowerment, they…
Pseudo-empowerment of the type ‘passing the monkey-package of responsibility plus risks’ (with no Talebian skin in the game) has a sister called Attribution Bias. It goes like this. If they fail, it was their fault (lack of skills, mistakes, blunders). If I succeed, it’s my ability and merit to empower. If they succeed, they are lucky. If I fail it would be all the accumulation of negative circumstances in which I was forced to manoeuvre. Like the bankers in a market crash.
For me, real empowerment (not the pseudo passing the monkey type of having more responsibilities, taking all risks, by the way being prudent, and not forgetting to be joyful with the opportunity) must be symmetrical between the empowering and the empowered. The empowering person must have his share of potential negative impact if things fail in the empowered territory; also positive rewards.
You could say that a manager that empowers others has skin in the game in terms of reputation, for example. Again that is first a hypothesis in search of validation. Organizational life, as I mentioned above, is fairly comfortable with glorifying those who empower and then forgiving them if the empowered troupes screw up. And this is because, in politically correct management land, we always want more empowerment, because empowerment ‘is good’, period. And Attribution Bias is always at the gates for a rescue.
However, to elevate the confusion to a higher level, as an old friend used to say, in many places ‘empowering people’ is synonymous with ‘for goodness sake do the damned job’ (as I say, often a job that you were supposed to do anyway, but that is not seen as performing). In truth, the whole territory of empowerment is muddy waters, or perhaps Bermuda Triangle. It has become meaningless.
And for me, restoring meaning entails ‘symmetrical skin in the game’ a la Taleb. At least, we should consider it as working definition. It would be good for clarity, transparency and efficiency; and will decrease the traffic of monkeys in the organizational jungle. #leavethemonkeysalone.