Employees must empower themselves

Dear Joan:
Your insightful columns are one of the main reasons I subscribe to the paper. I've even cut out a few and saved them for future reference. The column on leadership a month or so ago was especially good.

I've noticed that one of your favorite topics is employee empowerment. I'm guessing the reason that you frequently discuss the subject has to do with the lack of real progress being made. I've read several other articles on empowerment and I've worked in a corporate culture where it was being attempted, so I am aware of what empowerment should be and what it's turning out to be instead. My conclusion is that they (the powers that be) just don't get it.

The firm I worked for had, I'm sure, never thought about employee empowerment until recently. There was a clear and demoralizing gulf between management and production staff. We were expected to sit in front of our work stations day after day and do one thing--work. There was no thought of employee development or involvement in planning and decision making. Management attended staff meetings exclusively, and what went on was never disclosed. When tours came through, employees were largely ignored, like so much furniture, unless a technical demonstration was required. Even then the employee was rarely introduced to the client. Empowerment in those days meant providing decent pay, semi-annual cookouts, and the opportunity to borrow the company van on weekends.

Then, at about the same time empowerment became a buzzword, the company was bought out by a large, sophisticated corporation. Soon we were deluged with the opportunity to fill out surveys, attend meetings saturated with slogans, and participate in an employee enrichment program. It was obvious, however, that the whole thing was far more form than substance. Within a year four key employees, including myself, had departed, unimpressed by the rhetoric, and well on our way to empowering ourselves.

Which brings me to my primary point, a conclusion that I think may have been overlooked. Even the most sincere and effective leadership can never empower a single employee. True empowerment--and the only lasting kind--must be brought about by the employees themselves. Leaders most certainly have a role to play: they must open doors and encourage, but ultimately the best help they can give involves staying out of the way.

I'll give an example of real empowerment in action. Let's say there's a departmental staff meeting scheduled, VIP's only. The employees get together and dispatch a memo to the appropriate person saying they'd like to send two representatives from now on. If the leadership in the company is enlightened and supportive they'll respond, "By all means." The employees will immediately grow in confidence, gain ownership of the process, and take a big step toward feeling truly empowered. Not so if management must take their hands and say, "Would you like to attend a staff meeting?" A subtle but significant distinction.

I'm not advocating civil war--just a quiet, calm, controlled "revolution" of the kind recently witnessed in Eastern Europe. If company leadership reacts with hostility to employee initiative, it's a pretty safe bet any management sponsored empowerment would have been hollow anyway. On the other hand, if leadership responds with encouragement and support...well, frankly, I couldn't think of a better place to work.

How true. Empowerment, like "motivation" must come from within. You can't "empower" anyone. You can create the environment, remove barriers, encourage, but the employee must step forward. In fact, some of the enlightened managers I know scratch their heads in bewilderment because while some employees do reach out when the opportunity is given, others hold back.

The reason for some employees' reluctance is that they don't want the responsibility that true empowerment brings. They'd rather hang back and pick apart management decisions than take responsibility for their own initiatives. Whether this comes from years of poor treatment at the hands of management, or from their own lack of self-confidence, is an individual matter.

But frankly, I think there are more employees who would love to take on more responsibility, but the outright punishments and informal disincentives are just not worth the political fight and career liability.

The hard work of "empowering" employees means teaching, coaching, sharing information and truly listening to what employees have to say and then trusting them enough to involve them in important decisions that matter. When a manager "gets it" and employees embrace it, magic can happen. Thank you for your insightful letter.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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