The Myth of Empowerment

By: John Grinnell

During the S&L (savings and loan) bailout of the 1980’s and 1990’s, when 1,043 of the 3,234 S&Ls were closed or rescued, a young manager in a mid-sized bank figured out that his bank could buy financially strong savings and loans while everyone else was hypnotized by the media’s focus on the financial impact of the failed organizations. His idea was to find geographically appropriate and financially stable S&Ls with ownership that was over 60 years old and that wanted out. And what a great time to buy! As is often the case, his plan was counterintuitive and found opportunity within a crisis situation. He presented his detailed business plan to his boss, as well as to the CEO and the executive team, with none finding value in his proposal. However, when they said, “no,” he didn’t stop there; instead, with full transparency and disclosure, he asked permission to talk with the board of directors about his idea. Shortly after that he was running the bank as the new CEO and ran it for many years during its most significant growth period.

I don’t know who came up with the term “empowerment,” but they sure picked the wrong word, one that has created problematic expectations over the years for both managers and for those who work for them. The fact is NO ONE CAN EMPOWER ANYONE ELSE! Similar to an extension cord without a socket to plug into, there is no transfer of power. It is a destructive myth that a leader can empower a follower. As illustrated by the example above, only followers can step up, prepare, and take action to empower themselves.

We have as much power as we want.

-Robert Quinn

This is one of my favorite quotes by one of the thinkers and leadership gurus I respect most. In Deep Change (1989) he outlines this point in many ways. At first, I found that I wanted to argue with this potent phrase, but, after reflection, I realized it is true. Look at how many leaders tolerate off-purpose behavior, abdicate leadership, bitterly complain, and avoid taking action that would foster better experience for themselves and others.

Talk is cheap. Being responsible is priceless.

Human beings are volitional. In other words, we make choices, albeit most of them unconscious, automatic, and out of habit, but we choose our behavior and our attitude. As an analogy, a boss can throw a responsibility ball downfield into the end zone, but if the employee doesn’t want to act responsibly and choose to run the route properly, a play is wasted. In essence, the employee must be response- “able” and thereby empower themselves to run the route correctly and be positioned to make the catch. A boss who throws the ball knowing the wide receiver isn’t responsibly prepared only wastes the organization’s time and resources. To angrily insist on being empowered before being ready is egoplay and potentially destructive. An ambitious employee, just like a wide-receiver, must do all they can to understand what is required for success and take responsible action to educate and prepare themselves accordingly. A “hand-it-to-me” and “blame- the-overcontrolling-boss” ego-based mentality is rampant these days and usually results in the boss’ withholding the more challenging assignment the associate so desperately wants. Similarly, those unable or unwilling to ask for more responsibility when they want it, e.g., the more passive types who angrily wait for the boss to empower them, are no better.

Leaders don’t empower. Successful followers take power--properly

As I pointed out in a previous article, “The Art of Delegation” (2017), most bosses struggle as they learn to control outcomes effectively when distanced from the actual work. They must learn to build leaders who have the knowledge and confidence to perform well and take the responsibility for them. Most managers eventually master delegation and those who truly do always welcome employees who empower themselves to be prepared to take on more responsibility.

Responsible followers seek ideas for improvement and solve problems. They want to carry a more significant and challenging load. They also seek feedback, guidance, and help along the way as they need it. They don’t let their ego-drive or ambition sabotage their and the organization’s success. In other words, they are trusted because they do whatever is required to achieve the needed outcome. Below are seven characteristics of those who gain responsibility sooner:

  • They build an open and honest relationship with their supervisor. The boss knows there are no surprises, good or bad, when this associate carries the ball. They always come with a solution when they identify an opportunity or a problem. The solution is in alignment with the mission and values of the organization they serve.
  • They build self-awareness so their ego is not in control and, thus, they aren’t afraid of critical feedback that can help them identify new ideas, blindspots and areas for further alignment and improvement. They can ask for help early.
  • They make agreements thoughtfully and keep the ones they make.
  • Most don’t wait to be “anointed” with empowerment by the boss. They go out in service to their unit or “enterprise,” and find an area that needs attention where they can serve. And they don’t just find it, they make themselves an expert in that area or facilitate other experts’ coming together to help them build the plan for improvement.
  • They openly tell their boss the new responsibility they want and ask for what they need to do to prepare for it. Most, but not all, enlist mentors to help with this.
  • They build allies. They know that building 360° relationships is critical for success. In other words, they “build the bridge before taking their content-cargo across.”
  • They frequently use the words “please” and “thank you.”

Boiled down to the basics, the employee who wants to be empowered must take the power-- responsibly. With power taken in the right way, in service to the enterprise or unit, you will find increased responsibility for more significant and meaningful things to be done with your power.