Who shall I ask?

There's a lot of talk about 'being empowered', which is, in the words of the World Bank about a 'process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes'.

Recently (July 2015) Satya Nadella CEO, Microsoft sent an email to employees about their new organisational mission 'to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more'.

The UK's Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) says 'Our mission is 21st century enlightenment: enriching society through ideas and action. Everything that the RSA does is driven by this mission, as we aim to empower more people to apply their creativity to bringing about positive social change'.

They aren't alone in wanting to 'empower' people. Many organisations aspire to an empowered workforce. The UK Civil Service, for example, has a Leadership Statement which firmly states that leaders will be 'Empowering our teams to deliver'.

So is empowerment something that is 'given' to people by other people? It certainly seems that way but suppose people don't want to take the gift of being empowered or fear the consequences if they do take it and it goes wrong, or (and this is worse) accept the organisational statement that people are 'empowered' and when they act on it get reprimanded.

I've watched these situations in action a few times in the last couple of weeks. Here are three typical examples:

  • Someone suggested running a lunch n learn session and was encouraged to go ahead and 'just do it', but decided she couldn't because people in her position (junior in the hierarchy) don't run lunch n learns.
  • Someone wanted to arrange a large meeting to explore a topic and talked a lot about how it could run and what it might achieve and decided to give it a go but was very anxious about getting a 'good' outcome and not one that was perceived by 'higher ups' as a failure.
  • Someone put a poster up on the wall that talked about the types of social media available to try out and was reprimanded by her line manager for not asking permission to put up the poster.

Is empowerment in the gift of leaders? And if so, it is gift-able in some situations and not in others? I wonder if leadership 'accountability' gets in the way of empowerment. In organisations where hierarchical 'accountability' is a watchword a CYA culture may trump the 'empowerment' aspiration. That's when you get the question, 'Who shall I ask?' i.e. get permission from. No-one wants to brave taking a decision, giving something a go, or taking an initiative because the accountable leader does not trust that his/her subordinates will deliver successfully.

An HBR piece discusses 6 myths of empowerment and one of them is 'You empower people', it's not a gift in the author's view. People know what to do and leaders have to trust them to get on with it, and/or support and encourage them in getting on with it. Neither is it a gift in the Marshall Goldsmith's opinion. But how do empowerment and accountability sit together? For Lucy Kellaway's amusing, but biting, take on Satya Nadella's (Microsoft's) mission read this.

What's your view on the relationship of empowerment and accountability? Let me know.