The Employee Empowerment Paradox
When I discuss employee engagement, one of the main points I generally preach is that employee engagement and employee empowerment go hand-in-hand. People simply do not engage with things that they don’t feel control over or ownership of! According to SHRM, 70% of employees rank being empowered to take action at work when a problem or opportunity arises as an important element of their engagement.
But what happens when you want to empower your team members, and they don’t hold up their end of the deal?
This is a phenomena that I am seeing more and more with organizations I’m working with. I’m very lucky to work with many organizational leaders who understand the power of an engaged workforce, and are behind the idea of empowering their more junior team members with responsibility. And everything we know about the Millennial Generation, and Gen Z coming in after them, tells us that these are people who want to be empowered, promoted quickly, and have their ideas and skillsets taken seriously. They have a hard time waiting for advancement and paying their dues.
This seems like a match made in heaven – leaders who want to empowered and employees who say they want to take on that responsibility. But do they? More and more, I’m seeing that junior employees want the title…and they want the salary…but they also still want to be told exactly what to do. And when they are asked to live up to their level of empowerment by their boss, this causes a disconnect and they fail to perform. In other words, they want the benefits that being “empowered” will give them, but shy away from taking on the very real responsibility that comes with it.
So, what gives?
Is it a matter of too much, too soon? Maybe. Let’s think of what the life of an average American professional looks like to provide some context.
Before they enter the workforce, they’ve gone through at least 13 or 17 (or, in cases like mine, 25) years of schooling. What happens in school? You’re told what to do and when to do it, all the time. Line up here. Don’t color outside the lines. Show your work. No original thought – you have to justify everything you say with the thoughts of others. Follow the rules. Don’t question authority. By the time we graduate, we’re great order takers, but have never really been challenged to have new, original ideas about how things should be done or empowered to take control of our experience.
When we get our first job. And perhaps, for a little while, we feel like we are finally on our own and can start to make our own decisions. But most people discover quickly that this isn’t true at all – you come into an entry level position in any organization and you learn quickly that you are there to take orders from others. This is a necessary part of the professional experience – you’re not taught how organizations work in college and this is your training ground…but it doesn’t teach you how to handle responsibility and empowerment.
And how far up the ladder do most people have to go before they are blessed with real empowerment? For some it’s getting to a manager position. For others, it’s a director-level job. In some organizations, you actually have to make it all the way up to VP before you’re actually empowered. So what this means is that we have people in a professional environment for years (maybe even a decade or more) who are great order-takers but have never learned how to create or lead. And in that time, they’ve probably been given very little visibility into all of the extra work it requires.
All this means is that when we suddenly hand an employee who’s never had it before all the empowerment in the world, they have no idea what to do. It’s like pushing someone into the deep end of the pool without teaching them to swim.
Make sure they understand what they’re already empowered to do.
So, no, I don’t think the employee empowerment paradox a matter of too much too soon. Instead, we simply need to acknowledge that there has to be a transitionary period where your employees have to learn what being empowered really means. So ease them into it. Before making handing out the big responsibilities, make sure they can take on the small ones.
Try this exercise: If you’re their manager, take out a piece of paper and write down all the things your employees are allowed to make decisions on without asking you (if you’re in an HR position where you’re working with others to help them empower their teams, have the manager do this piece). Then separately and without discussion, have the employee in question take out a piece of paper and write down all the things they think they can make decisions on without asking their boss. Then compare the two. I’ve done this exercise hundreds of times and in almost every single case, there is a huge disconnect between what the manager thinks they are empowering the employee to do, and what the employee actually feels empowered to do.
The first step towards getting them comfortable with empowerment, then, is to make sure they are already owning the things they are empowered to do! You’ve just documented it, and now make sure this new normal of empowerment is communicated to the employee and both that person and their boss are held accountable to it. Even if they’ve always been empowered to do those things in theory, having it directly pointed out will make a difference in how much ownership they feel over those tasks.
But be careful – managers can’t backtrack on this. Once the list has been made, taking any empowerment away without really compelling cause will set you back to square one.
Make sure they understand what it means to be empowered.
To a lot of people, employee empowerment goes hand-in-hand with having a fancy title. When I’m coaching younger professionals, I hear more about the “Director” title than almost anything else. If they can just get to that title, they will feel their career has been a success.
The problem is that a lot of responsibility comes with that title! And oftentimes, it’s a level of commitment that the employee simply hasn’t been exposed to – they don’t see all the meetings, the levels of communication, and the nights and weekends that people work to keep up, plan, and make sure things stay on track. And so while you might think it should go without saying that more empowerment comes with more work, there is a difference between hearing it and knowing it theoretically, and experiencing it.
Regardless of whether they are getting a title bump or not, if you’re giving someone more decision making power, make sure they understand the upside and the downside. The magic formula to help people internalize almost any concept is “think, speak, do”. First, you’ve got to help them think about it. Perhaps you talk to them about it in a one-on-one meeting and ask them to consider it and discuss what they think that means in a follow-up chat. This gives them time to consider it, with a call to action that they are going to have to discuss it again to create some urgency. Then, in your next meeting, you force them to speak it and articulate to you that they understand what it means. Once you’ve hit those two steps, then they are ready to do.
Give them time and unconditional support.
When it comes to the employee empowerment paradox, my best advice is this: Don’t give up on them too quickly. Remember, you’re combatting decades of programming when you’re doing this, literally rewiring their brain to the new normal. This takes time. Make sure you keep an open line of transparent communication, giving them consistent feedback on what they are doing well and where they can improve. And when they have victories – even the small ones! – shower them with praise and positive recognition. It’ll make them feel great, supported, and ready to go after greater successes in the future.
Struggling with employee empowerment?
I help organizations all over the world up their level of employee empowerment. To learn how I can help you, reach out and we’ll find time to chat about specifics.
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