Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Stop empowering people - End disempowerment!

In the last two posts I’ve discussed some problems with of self-organizing teams and highlighted the need to be clearer about what is actually meant when talking of, that is naming, self-organizing teams. At a minimum the labels need clear definition (I suggested some definitions and I hope someone knows some better ones.)

I went further and I called for individuals and teams to be given authority so that timely decisions can be made with maximum knowledge. I’m sure everyone agreed with me up until that point and then I said we should stop “empowering” people, I said I hated the term empowerment and that probably confused a lot of people.

Now I’d better explain myself.

Actually my thinking comes directly from Henry Mintzberg so I’ll let him explain:

“empowerment [does] not change that [participation] because the term itself indicate[s] that the power remain[s] with the manager” Mintzberg, Managing, 2009

Mintzberg argues that the practice of empowerment leaves real authority, real power with the manager, when a manager “empowers” a worker he is offering him a gift, or rather a loan. It is the manager who chooses to empower the worker, by implication the manager may choose not to empower the worker or to remove the power at a later date. The very act of empowering a worker actually emphasises the lack of worker power.

Elsewhere in the same book Mintzberg makes a good point:

“Truly empowered workers, such as doctors in a hospital, even bees in the hive, do not await gifts from their managerial gods; they know what they are there to do and just do it. … people who have a job to do shouldn’t need to be empowered by their managers”

A little later Mintzberg offers a key insight:

“a good deal of what is today called ‘empowerment’ is really just getting rid of years of disempowerment.”

Its not about empowering software engineers to improve the build system, or testers to automate scripts, or analysts to do stakeholder mapping; its about trusting them to do their job right and letting them do it. These are the experts in their field, let them do what they know to be right, indeed, go further: insist they do the right thing.

So if you are a manager stop empowering people and teams, instead stop disempowering them. Give them the trust, authority and support to do their work.

And if you are a worker just reach out and take authority. One of MIntzberg’s better known peers, Tom Peters, like to quote the American soap star Rossanne Barr:

“Nobody gives you power, You just take it” Rossanne Barr quoted in Re:Imagine! by Tom Peters

Let me leave you with a classic pattern from Joe Begin, Do The Right Thing:

Things are bad. Really bad.

        •        When things are bad it is really tough and bad things happen.

        •        When things get better the bad stuff doesn't happen any more and you feel good. Really good.

Therefore: Do the right thing. Make the bad thing better.

The result: Things are good. Really good.

Known Uses:

        •        When you were small your father would make the Monsters Under the Bed go away just by sticking his head in your room. He did the right thing.

        •        When you are really sick, eat your Mom's chicken soup. Only your Mom's. Only she knows how to do the right thing.

Don’t wait for someone to give you authority or empower you, do the right thing.

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