The Case Against Dirty Empowerment
Giving up power and control is what empowerment is all about.
In the contemporary workplace, team members want and deserve more of it, and good leaders oblige. They hold others accountable to outcomes and give away as much influence over the process and everyday decisions as the team can handle.
Leaders who empower others set strategy and then delegate critical tasks to others, giving them the autonomy to decide how to achieve agreed-upon outcomes. As empowering leaders, they check in and serve as a resource to team members as they navigate the execution decisions and choices tied to performance.
Teams and team members that feel empowered typically outperform those who are directed in everyday tasks. As leaders give away more control and power, most teams and team members rise to the challenge.
Despite this well-documented fact, leaders with a high need for control have a hard time truly empowering others. They often say they are empowering others and then pull back on the reins. By second-guessing decisions, getting involved in the details, and diving into the day-to-day execution, they show the team they are not to be trusted.
This so-called dirty empowerment is even more demotivating than if the leader simply maintained tight control to begin with.
Because most contemporary organizations strongly promote the idea of empowerment, many leaders feel compelled to pay it lip service without any intention of actually giving up control. They, therefore, tell others they are empowered but then maintain a strict hold on decisions and processes.
The result is despair and dissatisfaction on the part of team members. They grouse and complain, often creating the “we-versus-them” mentality that is so destructive to high performance.
Creating a culture of empowerment benefits everyone, especially leaders. Spending time on strategy, key metrics, and resource allocation moves the team forward much faster than controlling the minutiae of execution.
Avoiding dirty empowerment and embracing the many advantages of sharing power and control is something every leader should strive for. Empowering team members to shape outcomes doesn’t take courage. It takes an ambition to succeed through others.
That sounds like leadership.
I have worked in several “dirty empowerment” environments (love that phrase, by the way), and you are absolutely right. It is more demoralizing than straight-up top-down workplaces.
Great question, and I love your phrasing. It was more than once, and each time it was organizational and even cultural. I carved out space for my people to operate successfully, but the forces were stacked against me.