Wolf vs Sheep

One of the au courant management pundit buzzwords bandied about for some time now is ‘Empowerment’. Pushing effective decisions making down throughout the organisation so that as many staff as possible are in a position to do the right thing and do it right even if the circumstance has not been explicitly covered in the policies and procedures manual or some training orientation. What I observe, however, is that despite the near universal acclaim of the concept, its execution is widely varied.

Most notably, ‘Empowerment’ is delivered in one of three manners…

1. No Empowerment – Well, you do have to start here. Yes, many managers and leaders still operate on the ‘command and control’ system of zero empowerment. Do everything by the book and if it is not covered by the book, then escalate to a superior.

2. Fake Empowerment – This form is most easily identified by the accompanying phrase ‘on your head be it’. What this is saying is, ‘I’m not going to punish you explicitly for taking this action, but I will distance myself from any downsides.’ The manager has in hence insulated their risk. They will typically share (if not claim) the upsides of the success of the subordinates action, but they can separate themselves from the downsides if need be.

3. True Empowerment – This form is most easily identified by the accompanying phrase ‘I’ve got your back’. What this is saying is, ‘I am trusting you with this decision which I realise could go up or down, but if it goes down, I will share in the costs and repercussions as a part of the responsibility of being your manager.’ Embracing potential failure as a necessary cost to innovation and high performing teams.

I’ve worked under all approaches. The last is obviously the best, but the first is manageable because at least you know where you stand. The middle one is leadership disfunction at its most acute where the executive wants something for nothing in risk terms.