empowermenthands.jpgIn business, empowerment is “a broad delegation of authority and commensurate responsibility to positions and persons that traditionally have not enjoyed such latitude of action.”

Empowerment works by pushing knowledge, training, communication, authority, and responsibility farther and farther down the organizational chart. The goal of empowerment is unabashedly to tap into the potential of every member of the organization.

I did not always enjoy the results decades ago, when as a novice leader and supervisor I first attempted empowerment. I quickly realized that training and experience were two vital ingredients in the recipe that all those glowing articles in the business press tended to gloss over. I also learned that empowerment is a process, not an event. I learned that power is best handed over gradually with plenty of opportunity for feedback, evaluation, teaching, and learning, with me being the student as much as the teacher.

I found that following the structure of a “win-win performance agreement” is a wonderful guide to empowerment and a strong tool to release team members’ potential in a disciplined way.

The key elements of a win-win performance agreement are
 * Desired results
 * Guidelines
 * Available resources
 * Accountability
 * Consequences

Desired results
How do we measure results? What will the result look like, feel like, accomplish? Short term? Long term? How will we know when we have achieved our goal? And it is crucial that all parties involved have the same goal. Often I’ve found myself working on a project only to find the round hole I’m digging does not match up with the square peg the rest of the team is whittling. Also, it’s difficult to hit a target you can’t see. None of this shooting the side of a barn and then painting the target around what you hit.

What are the guardrails, the areas where you cannot go? I often specify principled profit and long-term sustainable profit (cheating doesn’t count and neither do quickie fixes that rapidly unravel with lasting, unpleasant consequences). What are the known failure paths? I often hesitate here. Balancing the benefits of sharing the lessons of the past against saddling the new team with a mental box. It’s a judgment call, no doubt about it.

Available resources (usually limited!)
Financial, organizational, training, experience.

Frequency of reporting requirements? Intermediate checkpoints? Trust but verify. Expect the best and inspect for what you expect. What gets measured gets done.

For both success and failure, and all the degrees between them.

Like many tools, empowerment is a double-edged sword. Implemented properly, empowerment has the interesting effect of making front-line jobs more varied and interesting. Most people respond enthusiastically to being trusted with greater authority and gain a deeper understanding of the fundamental dynamics of the business. Proper implementation of empowerment requires deep commitment by all parties and the willingness and, yes, courage to engage in the iterative process of trust building and experimentation necessary to achieve harmonious interaction at what is without a doubt a higher level of complexity.

Command and control is so much simpler than empowerment. It also is much less effective, a waste of human potential as it fails to tap into the power of the human spirit that lies within everyone.