The Misguided Pursuit of Empowerment
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Frequently in peoples’ careers, ascension to the ranks of middle management is rapid. But then something happens. A small number of people break through, but the majority of folks seem to reach those middle tiers and then stall out. People often find themselves unable to be effective operating at the Director and Senior Director levels. The skill of orchestrating cross-functional teams proves elusive. Indeed, it is difficult to make people over whom you have no direct authority do what you need them to do.
The response for many people is an almost reflexive plea for empowerment. But there is a fundamental flaw in requesting to be empowered as you aspire to higher ranks.
What does empowered actually mean?
Empower actually means to give someone power. It’s really somewhat ironic. The very thing that you crave is authority, but you do not have the authority unless you are given it by someone else. There is no greater definition for lack of empowerment than actively seeking someone’s permission to have authority.
Forgetting that Merriam-Webster moment, the challenge with seeking empowerment is that it is a self-defeating activity. The request for empowerment highlights that you do not have it – to both your boss and to the people over whom you seek to have some sort of control.
Consider a moment a situation where requests for empowerment are common. If you are in a business role, there might be debates about the right course to take. Perhaps you are in a technical role and the merits of one architectural approach are being measured against another. Whatever the situation, the reason that people want empowerment in the moment is because they find themselves in a stalemate, and they are looking to tip the vote in their favor.
The challenge here is that the very reason you want empowerment is the reason that a mandate handed down from high is not likely to work. Decisions are frequently made high up in an organization, but it is the actions of the individuals that matter. And if they are asked to do something they don’t believe in (or worse yet, something they believe to be the wrong thing to do), no amount of mandate will make them work effectively.
In situations like these, the request for empowerment is actually an acknowledgement that the individual has failed to lead the group to an outcome. As someone in management, the question this raises for me is simple: should an individual who cannot lead people to an outcome be made more of a leader?
Now, the answer here is never crystal clear. And I don’t want to suggest that empowerment doesn’t ever matter. But the best leaders lead not through mandate but through conviction. They are able to outline a vision, sell it to their teammates, and then drive towards it. In the best teams, this is done without any real mandate or official empowerment. It just happens.
So as a leader, when you find yourself in a position that you are requesting empowerment, it likely signals a moment that you ought to be more introspective.
Are you taking enough initiative?
In far too many cases, there actually is rough consensus amongst team members, but everyone is operating under the assumption that someone else will make the call. All the team really needs is to be nudged in the right direction. In times like these, it is often enough to simply make a call and move the team forward.
If you find that the reason for inaction is inertia, you might consider just making the decision. That you are willing to stand up and say what direction ought to be taken might be enough to rally people behind your decision. And if this is the case, it demonstrates that you are both willing and able to lead teams.
Don’t be afraid to be wrong
It is amazing how many people are unwilling to make a decision because they are afraid of being wrong. A lot of these empowerment battles happen because people are passive about their convictions. There is a real fear of taking a stand because they are worried that either their position is not right or that people will not follow.
Oftentimes, it is sufficient to just make a decision and put the decision out there. It might not be the right one, but people will react to the decision and then iterate on it. This puts you in position to solicit input and modify the decision, which demonstrates your willingness to listen, which further solidifies your role at the lead.
Are you considering the individuals?
Especially in technical debates, we tend to assume that the merits of the discussion are 100% logical. But without understanding what is driving peoples’ positions, we cannot possibly hope to convince everyone to move in a particular direction. Those who are looking for empowerment are frequently trying to make a decision based on logic for an outcome that has an element of emotion.
Make sure that you understand every dissenting point of view. You should know not just the logical part of the argument but the emotional side that is backstopping it. If you have convinced yourself that there is no emotional side, then you need to start looking at base assumptions to see where people are diverging. If you assume the root of any conflict is logic, you are likely not fully considering the situation, which means that no amount of empowerment is going to help you.
The bottom line
As you move upward in your career, you will invariably find yourself in positions where you do not have complete control over everyone you need to do your job. Early on in this process, we all believe that mandate is the missing ingredient for making progress. But leadership is about leading, which goes well beyond mandate. If you find yourself demanding to be empowered so that you can make progress on a difficult task, chances are that you are discounting the role of the individual in leading a team.
In these moments, choose to be more introspective and determine if the real missing ingredient is command and control, or whether actual success gated by your willingness and ability to lead. More often than not, you will find that your pursuit of empowerment is misguided.
[Today’s fun fact: A group of cats is called a clowder. I couldn’t decide whether to make a cloud or a cat chowder joke here.]