by Phil Manington

Why empowerment fails

Empowered behaviour depends on two things: a manager giving power and an employee choosing to take up that power. The first step is for the manager to give power, so it is not surprising that the most common reasons for empowerment initiatives to fail are all management-based.

Some managers are not up to it.

Creating and leading an empowered team requires a very different set of skills to those needed by managers in the past. Some managers – those who got to their current position with old skills – simply can’t take on the new ones.

Some managers do not want empowerment to succeed.

They like the power and status that comes with their position and are worried that this will be diminished in an empowered culture. They will pay lip service to empowerment, but will not change their overall behaviour and will undermine any attempts to implement empowerment.

Managers don’t really understand what empowerment means.

They may confuse empowerment with delegation, or have a vague idea that starting a suggestion scheme or creating working groups to address morale will bring about empowerment. Others may simply believe that telling their staff that they are now empowered will do the trick.

Hofstadter’s Law:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

Douglas Hofstadter

Managers don’t appreciate the scale of the task.

Building an empowerment culture, even among a small number of people, is not a simple activity, especially if previous managers have been particularly autocratic. It requires time, effort and a coordinated approach. In other words, it needs to be treated as a project, covering beliefs, values, behaviours, systems, procedures and the environment.

Managers have agreed responsibilities and authority with staff, but continue to micro-manage the work.

This is usually because managers don’t trust their people to make good decisions. If you do this, your team members will soon realise what’s happening. They won’t know what they can and can’t do and, as a result, either hide decisions from you or bring everything to you.

Managers fail to create the type of environment that encourages empowered behaviour.

Particularly important are a clear vision – one that provides a strategic framework within which staff can operate, learning opportunities for people to develop and systems and procedures that encourage rather than inhibit empowered behaviour.

Managers blame staff when things go wrong.

This is guaranteed to destroy any sense of empowerment. It is vital that, whatever the mistake or problem, you must publicly support the members of your team. Remember that you are a role model for them, so the behaviour you adopt, they will follow. Start blaming them and you will find that you have quickly created a blame culture, not an empowered one.

Systems and procedures work against empowered behaviour.

People need to feel that their working lives are being enriched if they are to embrace empowerment. Often, systems and procedures can make them feel the opposite – that they are undervalued, overworked or poorly rewarded and that empowerment is just another attempt to take advantage of them. Ideally, you need to ensure that systems and procedures work for them, not against them. Anomalies in pay need to be removed, rewards need to be fair and consistent, responsibilities should match the job description, and so on.

It may be that you can do little about your company systems and procedures and this can be a real problem. All you can do is to be honest with your people about what you can and can’t change and work within the rules given to you. However, it is surprising how much a creative person can achieve without actually breaking any of those rules!

Employees don’t seem to become empowered, in spite of your efforts.

If you feel that nearly everyone in your team is failing to take up the opportunities you are offering, then it is probably something you are (or are not) doing. Ask yourself whether any of the management-based reasons shown above apply and ask team members what they think. Being open with them will encourage them to speak honestly and you will be able to move forward together.

Sometimes, it might just be one or two people who are not enthusiastic. This is perfectly understandable. Everyone will have different views about what they want to achieve and you will have taken this into account when dealing with each individual. So you may have some people who are sprinting towards empowerment and others who are only jogging.

But there may be one or two people who don’t seem to want to get involved at all. If, after trying everything, you decide that they can’t or won’t change – and they are still doing a good job – then you need to accommodate them. Remember that, in an empowerment culture, not everyone displays the same behaviour. Freedom to take the initiative, to make changes and to operate with minimum intervention suits some people more than others. Each employee should feel comfortable that they are not being pressured into working according to a set agenda.