Are you negatively or positively empowering your people? 

Are you negatively or positively empowering your people? 

I’m on a train hurtling towards London for a meeting to discuss the progress of a programme of cultural change I’m helping to facilitate. Reflecting on the great things I’ve seen and heard and the challenges and opportunities highlighted by the programme; I’m struck by some of the key leadership phrases or terms of our time and the impact seen as a result of how they are interpreted and applied in a negative and potentially damaging way.

I’m sure you’ve come across phrases including “having a can do attitude”, “being accountable”, and “leading from the front”. When these are applied in line with their positive intent, they make a considerable impact for good. When applied in a way that is counter to the original positive intention (at their worst used as an emotional ‘beating stick’ for underperformance) they do nothing but damage those on the end of them.

One such term (I may well look at the other terms another time) I regularly see being misappropriated is empowerment. There is a dramatic difference in its impact depending on how it is being applied and interpreted be it positively or negatively. What do I mean? Let’s take a look.

Positive Empowerment 

What does the word empowerment mean to you? If you view its interpretation positively, then it will no doubt mean that you have experienced positive empowerment and seek to provide it. Positive empowerment is given in a way that means those empowered feel trusted and deemed capable of great things; carrying out a task, creating a strategy or delivering outcomes in a way that they feel appropriate. 

As a result of being empowered in a positive way, the individual or team will be supported to an appropriate degree, challenged to come up with an approach to bridge a perceived gap and stretched, perhaps a little outside of their comfort zone, and left believing that they could bridge that gap.

On top of this, those positively empowered will be recognised along the way for the inputs they deliver and the outputs that arrived as a result of the quality of the actions they took. As a result the individual or team will grow in knowledge, belief and skill and self esteem, identity and status will be enhanced and those empowered will be left inspired, motivated and craving their next empowerment opportunity. Does this sound familiar?
  • Is this the type of empowerment you’ve received/been given?
  • Is this the type of empowerment you give to your people?
  • Would your people agree?
  • What will you start, stop and continue e as a result of your reflections?

Negative empowerment

Negative empowerment is where individuals and teams are empowered in a way that means they don’t feel trusted and whilst deemed capable of great things and able to carry out a task, they feel far from ready to do so.

When negatively empowered, no real account will be taken of true readiness and the stage of development of the individual to complete the task. There will have been little or no account or discussion had around previous experience of similar situations and the opportunity to draw on it or the additional direction (limited or otherwise) needed to get there.

As a result of being empowered in a negative way, individuals and teams will feel doubt, confusion and possibly even out of control. Supported to a degree lower than needed, the ’empowered’ will be challenged to come up with an approach; way beyond their comfort zone and there will be little clarity given, or co-created, on the inputs that will deliver the outputs sought or to the quality desired.

Negative empowerment risks the significant chance of undermining existing knowledge, belief and skill, self esteem, identity and status. Rather than feeling ready and craving the next empowerment opportunity those ’empowered’ may state that they don’t feel up to the job and ask to go back to old roles or ways of working. Sound familiar?

Is this the type of empowerment you’ve received/been given?
Is this the type of empowerment you give to your people?
Would your people agree?
What will you start, stop and continue e as a result of your reflections?

What am I seeing happening?

For all of the positive empowerment I have seen over the years, I’m noticing a worrying trend across not one but many organisations and many in ‘leadership’ roles for negative empowerment.

On some occasions, negative empowerment happens because those with the responsibility for empowering others don’t know how to empower and fail to seek the support they need. They feel unable to ask for it; even when they intuitively recognise it’s needed. 

On other occasions, it’s a wilful use of a ‘leaders’ perceived power to ask their people to work out for themselves what’s needed where the ‘leader’ has little or no clue of the changes needed to create the vision they seek or the capability to effectively facilitate/coach their people to co create it.

At its worst, the term empowerment is used in conjunction (implicitly or explicitly) with the terms “you are paid to deal with ambiguity” and “change is uncomfortable, you need to get comfortable to cope with change”, again hiding the ‘leaders’ own challenges with creating or providing clarity through change. 

Why is it happening?

The world is getting more complex, job roles and accountabilities wider and the pace of societal and organisational change is taking place at a pace far faster than ever before. We don’t always have the opportunity to reduce the pace of change, sometimes it’s thrust upon us, but we do have the choice about how we react to it. 

When we do have control over the pace of change, we need to exercise our own accountability and the empowerment we have as leaders to positively empower our people to deliver change. We need to ensure that we are not hiding behind an ego that says “I can’t let on that I don’t know” (even in private) for fear of undermining ourselves and instead, co create with our people the certainty we all need.

The reality is that we undermine our own leadership and the legacy we seek to leave every time we negatively empower those in our care; for that is the accountability that lies across the shoulders of leaders.

If you seek positive change, you need to be the change you seek and that means seeking clarity and co creating it. If we don’t, why should our people?

Questions to consider:
  • What am I thinking and feeling as a result of reading this blog?
  • What are those thoughts or feelings telling me or showing me I need to do?
  • What could I do?
  • What will I do (X) ?
  • What are the consequences of not doing X ? 
  • What are the benefits of doing X ?

If you’d like more answers…

If you or your people would like more answers or are unsure of how to proceed; drop me a note or a call, I’d love to speak with you

Who am I? Stefan Powell…

I am yourleadershipcounsel, a father, husband, part time rock star and passionately bonkers about helping leaders get the most from themselves and their people.

What my clients have said…

“After Meeting Stefan it was his passion to understand the business and work with us as a partner…Stefan has been really valuable in guiding us as a company on our journey of cultural change, his passion to ensure we succeed as a company shines through…Thank you, we look forward to our continuing journey” Paul Hunt – Managing Director – Phoebus Software Ltd

Read more testimonials here: Testimonials


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