6 myths about empowering employees (Harvard Business Review)

By David Marquet

Source: https://hbr.org   May 27, 2015

When Dr. Stephen R. Covey visited the nuclear powered submarine I commanded, the USS Santa Fe, he told me it was the “most empowering workplace he’d ever seen.” It was a bit ironic for me, because I’m sour on the word empowerment and I’m sour on empowerment programs. To me, saying we need an empowerment program is like saying we need a swimming program. The implication is that swimming isn’t a natural occurring behavior for our people.

So, what we are saying when we say we need an empowerment program is that the fundamental way we run our organization is dis-empowering, or is it de-empowering? The solution isn’t a “program.” The solution is to change the fundamental way your organization is designed and managed so that people can exercise the natural power that comes from being a human.

Based on my experience in turning the Santa Fe from the worst-performing ship in the Navy to the best, here are the six biggest myths about empowerment:

Myth 1: The route to empowerment is a program.

You can’t implement a bottom-up concept in a top-down way.  This inherent self-contradiction dooms it.

The first step always needs to be a commitment from the group that they want more authority and more decision-making. Generally this follows a frank discussion. If the team wants empowerment, you are off to the races. If not, you learned that you’d be wasting your time. Try again in six months.

Myth 2: You empower people. 

People are already empowered. What you, as a leader do, is give them the voice and authority to exercise the empowerment they naturally have.

Consider: If it takes the boss to empower them, the boss can unempower them, and that’s not very powerful. This isn’t to say that leaders don’t have an important role in letting people exercise the natural power that they have. What leaders do is push decision-making down the organization as far as possible so that the decision is made by those people who are closest to the information. This is contrary to the standard habit of pushing information to those who have the authority for making the decision.

Myth 3: Empowerment is enough. 

Leaders must also ensure that their people have the requisite competence and clarity to make successful decisions. This means an empowering organization spends more time with technical training and clarity of purpose than one that relies on a top-down compliance model. Empowered employees without sufficient technical competence and organizational clarity cause chaos.

Myth 4: Your picture of empowerment matches your team’s. 

One of the problems with the word empowerment is that it is vague. “Empowerment” does not inherently contain the ability to measure and affect it: two necessary components for improving it. What do we say, “Be somewhat more empowered than you used to be?” That’s like saying “Get stronger” and then going to the gym and never knowing how much weight you are pushing.

Instead, use specific words to identify the level of empowerment you want, such as “explore options,” “recommend alternatives,” or “come up with a plan,” or “do what you think is best.”

Myth 5: During a crisis, it’s appropriate to revert to traditional top-down command and control. 

In fact, the more important and time-urgent the event, the bigger the relative performance gain an empowered team will achieve. The reason most organizations revert to command and control is because they have never seen a highly trained team operate in a crisis or a particularly high-tempo, high-stress operation. While there does need to be coordination and communication, if each member knows his or her job, the leader can still refrain from issuing orders. The highest performing teams in the military perform in highly decentralized, and empowered ways.

Myth 6: Blowing up your hierarchy will result in empowered people.

On the contrary, blowing up your hierarchy will result in confused people. The problem with hierarchy is not the role definition that comes with it, the problem is that bosses use hierarchy to tell those below them what to do. We believe that clear role definitions (with people filling various roles that may change from time to time) allows the team to focus on getting the job done rather than worrying about the uncertainly of the limits of their authority or their responsibilities. This uncertainty will (certainly) reduce their ability to solve highly cognitively demanding tasks.

Instead, use hierarchy in a way that places greater obligation on those higher up to take care of their teams, and greater responsibility to ensure those below them have the tools they need, in the form of technical competence and organizational clarity, to be successful when making decisions.

Remember, in highly effective organizations there are leaders at every level, not just at the top.