We want to be empowered. Google’s internal research reveals that personal work empowerment is the second highest value that Google employees have. We want to be able to do our work when we want, where we want, and with whom we want. Psychologist Edward Deci confirmed that autonomy is one of the core motivators the drive us to do great work. This seems to be especially true in the U.S. where our culture values personal freedom above virtually anything else. This is not surprising when you consider the fact that our nation has been a magnet for people who want to live differently than they were being forced to live in the country of their birth. We relish our independence.
We work in an increasingly complicated, fast-changing, ambiguous world, which makes it difficult to know what you need to know to make good judgments and avoid causing unintended negative effects.
But making true working-autonomy effective is not easy. We work in an increasingly complicated, fast-changing, ambiguous world, which makes it difficult to know what you need to know to make good judgments and avoid causing unintended negative effects. In the workplaces where I train leaders I find that the tension between the desire for personal autonomy and the need for constant collaboration extremely problematic. On the one hand, if personal autonomy is strangled people quit taking initiative, and lose their imagination. If, on the other hand, personal autonomy is expressed recklessly, rivalries, blame and rework become the hallmarks of the culture.
The truth is today’s most successful organizations are ones in which leaders are masters of executive management.
Thankfully there is a way out of this dilemma. It is the lost art of management. Over the last 30 years management has gotten a bad name. Books have been written about the difference between leadership, which we are told is awesome, and management which we are told is boring. The truth is today’s most successful organizations are ones in which leaders are masters of executive management. The old idea that leaders can just paint a vision and hire smart people to find their own best way to success is the sure path to failure. It’s appealing because it’s easy. It’s a lot harder for leaders to stay engaged with the actual work being done but it’s absolutely necessary to avoid making stupid decisions and keeping organizations focused on what really matters every day.
The leadership secret for scaling success is to follow the disciplined process of empowerment.
I know…empowerment is a tired word that’s been so abused it causes eyes to roll and a gag response. But stay with me. If you want to experience the inner dignity of autonomy and avoid chaos caused by being in the dark as to what others are doing take a close look at the Seven Steps of Empowerment. One more thing before I start. It is very unlikely you will be led or managed in this way. You will have to manage yourself. You will need to seek the answers to these 7 questions and make yourself a pest if need be to get the answers. Otherwise you are being set up to fail. Work will be frustrating, draining and stressful. What you are seeking to become on the most important work you are doing is what Apple calls the Directly Responsible Individual (DRI).
This doesn’t mean you’re in charge or you can order people to follow your commands. Rather it means that you will take the responsibility to achieve the goals of your work no matter what. This will cause you to become more persuasive and influential. You will be motivated to engage more deeply in the work and your relationships with your colleagues. And it’s at the core of what makes work satisfying. Here are the Seven Steps to Empowerment. If you are the manager you are responsible for providing these.
If you are the person seeking empowerment it is up to you to make sure that you have each of these 7 elements clear. Clear goals: Your objectives should be strategic, specific and prioritized. Most of us feel bombarded with urgencies caused by internal failures or external threats. When everything is important nothing extraordinary gets done. To be empowered you must know what is most important every day. Clear reasons: Research from Zenger|Folkman (Extraordinary Leader) showed that most leaders and managers are very weak positive motivators.
This is sad. Many managers seem to use an authoritarian mindset that assumes that people just need to obey whatever commands are issued. This is fundamentally disrespectful. People work better, harder and smarter when they know how their work matters to the larger success of the enterprise. If you’re a manager, explain in detail how the work of your team helps important goals to be achieved that ultimately benefit your customer.If you’re a team member working in the dark, ask your manager why your work matters. (If they think you’re a dingbat for asking you probably need a new manager.)
Clear role: In order to be empowered you need to know what is specifically expected of you. Increasingly, roles have become very ambiguous leading to amazing levels of needless friction. Imagine an athletic team that was constantly being told that it was vital that they win while most of the players were confused about the position they were supposed to play. Pretty soon everyone would simply be at each other. Welcome to absolute chaos and guaranteed failure. Yet I see this all the time. Know your role and what is expected of you. Clear measures and milestones: Perhaps the most important element of being empowered is to know how to measure progress towards ultimate success.
I find this is relatively common for work team results. There are numerous software packages that track projects using green, yellow and red to show the state of the project. Yet I see virtually none of this for individuals. You cannot be truly empowered if you don’t know if you’re individual work is contributing to the success of your team or organization in the way that is needed. It may take some thoughtful analysis and imagination to come up with it personal dash board of success indicators.
It is worth it. Once you are clear on how to connect your daily effort with work success you will feel truly empowered to put as much effort, skill and energy as needed. Clear resources: We live in an age where the mantra “do more with less” has been forced on us by the Wall Street mindset that the surest way to productivity is to reduce payroll costs while insisting employees do more work. This dumbness has seeped into every part of our work-life. We are constantly asked to achieve “stretch” goals without clear agreement on how much time, money or talented people we need to make it happen. Too many organizations glorify heroes who make extraordinary sacrifices to achieve objectives of little strategic value.
To be empowered we really need to know what our resources are so they can be deployed in the most productive way. Clear Guidelines: Nearly all organizations work within constraints. Laws and regulations, company policies, business rules and processes are all important guidelines that should be spelled out so you don’t step in something you regret.
Clear feedback: There is a mountain of research that confirms that the fastest way to improve is to get clear and precise feedback, which is very rare in a business situation. If you want to be empowered you need to ask for feedback on an ongoing, even daily basis. The best teams and the best organizations produce a river of feedback that flows easily so that everyone can make corrections and improvements in real-time. It’s refreshing to work in environments where people are so committed to extraordinary success that they are willing to coach each other to make sure it happens.
So, as you look at this list of seven conditions of empowerment ask yourself… how often do I have clear goals, clear reasons, clear role, clear measures, clear resources, clear guidelines, and clear feedback? In my experience I simply don’t see this very often. Yet most of the problems that I get involved in trying to solve for business organizations would not arise if employees were truly empowered to achieve success. I don’t believe anyone wakes up in the morning with the goal to screw-up.
We want to be successful but few of us are well-managed. The answer, I believe, is to manage yourself by insisting that you know the answers to these seven conditions of empowerment. When you do you will be surprised by how competent you already are.