I always loved this provocative “question”, symbol of contentment and leadership arrogance, that one of my ex-colleagues loved to use, in order to help well intentioned leaders realize that, maybe, they were part of the problem that they were complaining about…
We all know leaders, honestly convinced that they have done their best to empower their organization:
- The strategy had been elaborated with the best consultants, who even ran interviews in order to claim they had engaged people. A fantastic communication pack had been prepared
- The leaders cruised around the company with positive and encouraging messages
- The top execs were reported to deliver great emotional speeches which they normally didn’t do so well before.
And, in spite of this all, “they” (read “the employees”) still don’t take ownership of the change. They are still neutral and appear disengaged, as the numbers in the employees’ survey show. So what is wrong “with them”?
This is sometimes the type of briefing we are invited to and, often, when talking to the “lower ranks”, the story is different:
- Power distance and arrogance still permeate in the behaviours of the leaders
- Numerous examples of disempowerment are given as a justification for not feeling empowered
- Very negative and destructive stories are overpowering the few positive stories about the significant leaders’ attempt to authentically and emotionally connect with the rest of the organization.
So what happened?
There can be, of course, many reasons for people in an organization not to feel “empowered”.
Followers sometimes expect “power” to be handed over to them, with so many guarantees that they, unconsciously, know/hope this will never happen. They have therefore the excuse to be “victims” and, as it is sometimes easier to be a slave than the master of their own destiny, they will be… happy to be unhappy.
But, in our experience, leaders, far too often embrace the words of empowerment without being ready for it, intellectually and emotionally.
- I remember the case of an institution, founded by an admirable, creative and charismatic leader. When his time had come to choose a successor, I warned him about the strong signal his decision would send to the organization. He finally “empowered” a solid “Manager of the status quo” (whereas he was, himself, recognized as highly creative and visionary), obedient to authority (when he was himself quite a rebel), hardworking but not very inspiring. This manager focused on what he knew how to do best: procedures, cost cutting, politics and administration. Not very surprisingly, it only took a few years until this institution went in disarray, down the rankings and people all regretted the good old days of the previous leader… What had probably happened here, is that the old man found it so difficult to let go of his creation that he unconsciously chose someone whom he knew wouldn’t be able to run it as well as he had done himself.
- Years ago, I had been invited to a Board meeting to present a Mass Engagement Project that should be creating a stronger ownership and empowerment about the new strategy… The weeks preceding the meeting with the Board, I received advices and recommendations on what to say, how to say it, what topics to avoid… I was shocked by the waste of energy (my document was redone a record of times), all had to be perfect and the main focus was “Don’t say anything that could trigger our CEO’s negativity”… In other words, I was strongly advised to do anything I could to avoid any possible bad news, disagreement, challenge to the boss. The name of that game was: “try to guess what he wants to hear”… Engaging people under such conditions was just an illusion. I decided not to run the project.
- And, from time to time, I happen to be invited by leaders of organizations who bitterly complain that nothing ever gets led to completion and that their people do not grab the empowerment they are willing to give them. When I am allowed to sit in their meetings, I often see them, indeed, let their colleagues talk for a while, for each important subject but, suddenly they will “blow the end of the game” and enforce “their” decision. Game over. The frustration is very palpable.
And that is probably where we should look at when we feel that our people do not seize the empowerment we think that we are willing to grant them:
- Are we truly prepared to let them run the business in their own way?
- Are we willing to watch them change rules that were sacred to us?
- Will we feel at ease to see them succeed where we failed?
- Will we be authentically happy to see them being better than we are?
- Will we let them commit mistakes and learn from them?
I will never forget the shock, in my village, when I allowed all employee, even apprentices, to sign documents in my name, when I was the president of our Tourist Office… I confess to have felt slightly anxious a few times but what this created as a wave of respect, self-esteem, engagement and… empowerment was definitely worth the risk. And, in the five years of my tenure, not a single mistake went out and the number of typos dropped dramatically.
So the question should be: “What do I do that prevents my people to fly like eagles as well?”