Long ago, I was a project manager and senior engineer for a company undergoing a Change Transformation. You know the kind, where the culture changes, along with the process. The senior managers had bought into the changes. The middle managers were muddling through, implementing the changes as best they could.
Us project managers and the technical staff, we were the ones doing the bulk of the changes. The changes weren’t as significant as an agile transformation, but they were big.
One day, the Big Bosses, the CEO and the VP Engineering spoke at an all-hands meeting. “You are empowered,” they said. No, they didn’t say it as a duet. They each said it separately. They had choreographed speeches, with great slide shows, eight by ten color glossies, and pictures. They had a vision. They just knew what the future would hold.
I managed to keep my big mouth shut.
The company was not doing well. We had too many managers for not enough engineers or contracts. If you could count, you could see that.
I was traveling back and forth to a client in the midwest. At one point, the company owed me four weeks of travel expenses. I quietly explained that no, I was not going to book any more airline travel or hotel nights until I was paid in full for my previous travel.
“I’m empowered. I can refuse to get on a plane.”
That did not go over well with anyone except my boss, who was in hysterics. He thought it was quite funny. My boss agreed I should be reimbursed before I racked up more charges.
Somehow, they did manage to reimburse me. I explained that from now on, I was not going to float the company more than a week’s worth of expenses. If they wanted me to travel, I expected to be reimbursed within a week of travel. I got my expenses in the following Monday. They could reimburse me four days later, on Friday.
“But that’s too fast for us,” explained one of the people in Accounting.
“Then I don’t have to travel every other week,” I explained. “You see, I’m empowered. I’ll travel after I get the money for the previous trip. I won’t make a new reservation until I receive all the money I spent for all my previous trips. It’s fine with me. You’ll just have to decide how important this project is. It’s okay.”
The VP came to me and tried to talk me out of it. I didn’t budge. (Imagine that!) I told him that I didn’t need to float the company money. I was empowered.
“Do you like that word?”
“Sure I do.”
“Do you feel empowered?”
“Not at all. I have no power at all, except over my actions. I have plenty of power over what I choose to do. I am exercising that power. I realized that during your dog and pony show.
“You’re not changing our culture. You’re making it more difficult for me to do my job. That’s fine. I’m explaining how I will work.”
The company didn’t get a contract it had expected. It had a layoff. Guess who got laid off? Yes, I did. It was a good thing. I got a better job for more money. And, I didn’t have to travel every other week.
Change can be great for an organization. But telling people the culture is one thing and then living up to that thing can be difficult. That’s why this month’s management myth is Myth 34: You’re Empowered Because I Say You Are.
I picked on empowerment. I could have chosen “open door.” Or “employees are our greatest asset.” (Just read that sentence. Asset???)
How you talk about culture says a lot about what the culture is. Remember, culture is how you treat people, what you reward, and what is okay to talk about.