Empowering: is it a control device?

Someone sent me a note asking 'I wonder if you are interested in writing a blog for the resource pack for the Culture tool? It is missing a few stories about how others 'do things'. I thought of you for the bit on empowering.'

The Culture Tool is a discussion diagnostic where teams talk about various questions and then rate themselves. When all the questions have been rated a radar chart is generated and the group then decides what, if anything, they want to do to change the picture. The question on empowerment reads: 'To what extent do you feel your team/ group are confident/able to empower people?'

Thinking about this, it seems to me that the question behind that question is about the relationship between power/control/autonomy and empowering. The nature of the statement 'able to empower people' suggests that empowerment is a gift given by those with power to those without power, and if that is the case then the gift could be withdrawn as part of a control system.

I found several discussions on this as I started to explore my line of thinking. For example, an HBR article by Robert Simons, Control in an Age of Empowerment. He wrote it in 1995, and although I'm not keen on the mechanistic language, I found he has interesting and topical ideas around types of control 'levers': diagnostic, beliefs, boundary and interactive.

He says it is the 'Beliefs systems [that] empower individuals and encourage them to search for new opportunities. They communicate core values and inspire all participants to commit to the organization's purpose', but in Simons' view participants (employees) are only empowered within 'boundaries [that are'] in modern organizations, embedded in standards of ethical behavior and codes of conduct, and are invariably written in terms of activities that are off-limits. … Telling employees what not to do allows innovation, but within clearly defined limits.'

Another (1998) discussion talks about two types of empowerment: structural, and personal. Structural empowerment dealing with authority expressed as 'pushing the decision making down to the lowest level'. And personal empowerment expressed as the ability for the individual to develop and apply autonomous* decisions and behaviours.

The relationship between the two suggests that 'the only power of hierarchy is to limit it (autonomy) not to give it… Management can prevent but cannot grant power … organizations and societies often create environments which takes away the potential choices an individual can have.' It is Simon's boundary discussion from a different angle.

So 'empowerment' is the extent to which organizational boundaries enable the ability of groups and individuals to make autonomous decisions and choices. In other words, autonomy is organizationally bounded. (Dan Pink, author of Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us, thinks 'empowerment' is a control mechanism somewhere on the spectrum 'between meaningless and insidious – fundamentally flawed').

So, I am back where I started with the thought that where notions of empowerment in organizations seem to get tangled is in the tensions of power/control/autonomy. We speak about 'empowering' but it's always within the context of the organisational structures, processes, and risk appetite.

However, if we really do want people to assume more control, ask forgiveness not permission, and believe that managers would like staff to make sensible decisions and choices off their own bat, which many organizations say they do want, then what needs to happen? A prescription, or copying from how others do things, won't work because different contexts will respond differently to it. But maybe some questions could stimulate a discussion.

  • Why is 'empowerment' being seen as desirable for the organization? (What does it look and feel like in practice?)
  • What is the outcome leaders are hoping for when they say they want to 'empower' employees?
  • Who does the 'empowering' to whom?
  • What are the boundaries of 'empowerment' and how does it relate to 'autonomy'?
  • What are the control tools and devices that reward or punish to much or too little evidence of 'empowerment'? And are they consistently applied?
  • How will people know when they are 'empowered'?

If we do want to know how others do things, Spotify, a digital music service, is lauded as an example of how to 'empower' and how 'autonomy' works in their organization. They talk about 'autonomous teams – fully empowered to fulfill their mission'. In one of the many, many articles about Spotify we learn how Spotify 'balances employee autonomy and accountability, balances freedom to innovate versus following proven routines, and balances alignment with control.'

This HBR piece is worth reading because it offers insight into how one organisation grapples with the relationships between empowering/power/control/autonomy. It confirmed my view that empowering is a control device, and it how it is used that makes the difference between enabling degrees of autonomy and being, in Dan Pink's words, fundamentally flawed.

Do you think empowering is a control device? Let me know?

*Autonomy is "the ability to make informed choices about what should be done and how to go about doing it. This entails being able to formulate aims and beliefs about how to achieve them, along with the ability to evaluate the success of those beliefs in the light of empirical evidence"