Designing Empowerment

Many words and phrases in organisational use puzzle me.  ‘Bring your whole self to work’ is a current one, as is ‘empowerment’, and ‘resilience’.  They’re possibly ok as concepts, but what do they mean in practice and what are the organisational design implications of them.

Empowerment caught my attention this week as I was with a leadership team talking about organisational culture.  They felt they wanted a ‘culture of empowerment’.

First a definition.  According to the Business Dictionary empowerment is:

‘a management practice of sharing information, rewards, and power with employees so that they can take initiative and make decisions to solve problems and improve service and performance.

Empowerment is based on the idea that giving employees skills, resources, authority, opportunity, motivation, as well holding them responsible and accountable for outcomes of their actions, will contribute to their competence and satisfaction. ‘

Explicit in the definition is the ‘gift’ of empowerment.  The idea of ‘giving’ empowerment means that there may be situations in which empowerment is not given.  The definition does not cover the motivation for giving the gift, nor the recipient’s response to it.

Leandro Herrero explores some of this aspect in one of his Daily Thoughts.

‘The ‘expectations muddle’ of empowerment has different shapes and flavours:

  1. I expect you to do something but you don’t think you are empowered to do.
  2. I empower you to do something (I have decided it is good to empower you) but you don’t want to be empowered (too much responsibility?)
  3. I am told that delegation is good, so I delegate, but call it empowerment. But I am just passing the monkey on to you.
  4. I empower you, you think I am abdicating.
  5. I don’t have permission to do, or I think I don’t have, I feel I am not empowered, but you never thought you needed to give me permission.
  6. You are empowered! Here you are! Take it. What? (Is he ok?)
  7. Empowering you means you need to behave as if you were the owner of the business (does it mean I can have your bonus?)
  8. We are all empowered, for goodness sake, just take accountability for things!
  9. I am empowering you to be empowered, but not too much, because I will lose control.
  10. I am told to let it go, so I am empowering you, but you don’t believe me for a second, because you know me. So I may have to do something more than just saying it.
  11. You are empowered. Please report to me weekly on the hitting of milestones, number of KPIs and times you took a break.
  12. I can’t empower everybody, it would be a disaster.’

In our discussions we concluded that leadership team members needed to come to some agreement on what empowerment ‘looks like’ and situations or contexts where they want to give the gift of empowerment to employees.

As an example, I told the story of Pret a Manager that asks the baristas to give away a number of free coffees per week ‘Pret employees tell me that the freedom to give a free coffee is immensely empowering. It injects a random act of kindness into the day. It gives delight and hurts not.’  But the giveaways come with some controls – a limit to the number of giveaways, an expectation that the barista won’t consistently give the same person a free coffee, etc.  Empowerment comes with controls.

Eric Flamholtz, an academic, points out that ‘control over an organization can be exercised through many mediums’.  He defines an ‘organizational control system as a set of mechanisms – both processes and techniques – which are designed to increase the probability that people will behave in ways that lead to the attainment of organizational objectives. The ultimate objective of a control system is not to control the specific behavior of people per se, but, rather, to influence people to take actions and make decisions which in their judgement are consistent with organizational goals’.

So, once the realm of empowerment is agreed, then what controls have to be designed to enable, require, or expect employees to accept the gift of it (and what are the penalties if they don’t?).

There are various views on the categories of organisational control systems.  Sticking with Flamholtz for now, he presents a useful framework ‘for understanding the nature, role, functioning, design, and effects of organizational control systems’.  He discusses five control processes: planning, operations, measurement, feedback and evaluation-reward. ‘Each of these individual components of the core control system is itself a system, while at the same time functioning as a sub-system of the overall core control system’.  To design the control system that results in the desired behaviour he discusses what control systems must do:

  • They must be able to motivate people to make decisions and take actions which are consistent with organizational objectives.
  • They must integrate the efforts of several different parts of an organization. Even when people are trying to act in the organizations’ best interests, they may find themselves working at cross-purposes.
  • They must provide information about the results of operations, and people’s performance. This is referred to as, ‘autonomy with control.’
  • They must facilitate the implementation of strategic plans.

Another view on control systems is from Robert Simons who proposed four types:

  • Diagnostic control systems allow managers to ensure that important goals are being achieved efficiently and effectively.
  • Beliefs systems 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.
  • Boundary systems establish the rules of the game and identify actions and pitfalls that employees must avoid.
  • Interactive control systems enable top-level managers to focus on strategic uncertainties, to learn about threats and opportunities as competitive conditions change, and to respond proactively.

Others categories control systems in other ways, but the basic idea is that if we want to gift empowerment then a) we have to know within what parameters and b) design and establish controls that enable it within the parameters.

What both Simons and Flamholtz’s articles do is tackle the formal aspects of control systems.  The ‘gift’ of empowerment is designed within a controlling framework/system.   Simon, for example, says ‘Senior managers intentionally design beliefs systems to be broad enough to appeal to many different groups within an organization: salespeople, managers, production workers, and clerical personnel.’

What neither writer does is address the emotional/feelings aspects that underpin Herrero’s ‘expectations muddle’.

In his article ‘The growing role of informal controls: does organization learning empower or subjugate workers?’ academic, Laurie Pant, notes that ‘under uncertainty, when the goals and means of accomplishing goals may be unknown, control assessments shift to outcomes (did we achieve the objective?) or to judgements (is there a consensus that things are being done right?), at this point, he says, ‘informal controls such as group norms become especially important.’  How clear the informal controls are or are not will inform the  attitudes to and expectations of empowerment.

What are the formal and informal controls around empowerment in your organisation? How are you designing control systems to curb or encourage empowerment?  Let me know.

Image: Raúl León Alvarez, Autoprision