Why are we so bad at empowerment?

by | Apr 12, 2017 | Blog

‘Empowerment’ is talked about all the time. Most leaders accept it is a positive force, but few manage to make it happen. Why? Dr Simon Hayward from Cirrus highlights the barriers to empowerment and suggests how we can overcome them.

What is empowerment?

Empowerment is a climate where people are trusted to do the right thing and take responsibility, where they are coached to make good decisions, and where they are confident that mistakes will not be punished. It is more about culture than delegation of individual tasks.

Empowered colleagues are trusted to do the right thing in line with the overall purpose and direction of the organisation. They feel secure about making decisions on a regular and consistent basis.

If you have an empowered culture, where people take on increased responsibility for decision making, your organisation is likely to be more agile and responsive to customer needs and market opportunities.

The concept of empowerment has been around for many years. Most organisations believe it to be a good principle. Despite this belief, genuine empowerment, in my experience, is rare.

What are the barriers to empowerment?

The empowerment scenarios I see most often are partial or uncoordinated. In some organisations it is seen as a good principle but in practice there is a tendency to seek approval and avoid mistakes. In others it is left to individual managers to decide on how much they share decision-making responsibility with others.  Real empowerment involves a more concerted and cultural shift than either of these scenarios.

In one international business I observed, there was much discussion about the benefits of empowerment, both with senior leaders and with the HR team, but actually putting it into practice proved too great a challenge. What I observed was a senior team who prized control over the business more highly than the potential performance benefits of creating a culture of empowerment. The CEO actually admitted that he had achieved success by trusting himself to get things done and that he found it hard to delegate decision-making more widely across the business. The result was a more compliant, less nimble organisation.  It certainly takes time and persistence to create the environment where people are confident to take on the increased responsibility and for some perceived risk that comes with empowerment.

The tension is obvious: while CEOs and other senior managers may recognise the value in principle of leading an organisation which operates with an empowered culture, where people are able to do what’s best for the customers within the framework of the direction, purpose and values, their preference is often for decisions to be mandated from the top to ensure control and the assurance of consistency of execution.

What our leadership research tells us about empowerment

When Cirrus and Ipsos LEAD first carried out our Leadership Connections research in 2015, we explored the relationship between HR and the C-suite in major organisations.  The research found that although devolved decision-making increases agility and improves collaboration, senior leaders often don’t see the need for it.

In our 2017 Leadership Connections research, we looked at the role of HR in business transformation. Empowerment was identified as one of the four key findings. There was a widespread feeling across interviewees that in an increasingly fast-moving and complex business environment, there simply isn’t time for requests to make their way up a hierarchical ladder in search of approval. As Danielle Harper, chief people officer at Metro Bank, put it: “We say to our colleagues that there should be no stupid rules that get in the way of focusing on the right outcome.”

Additional research from Ipsos MORI demonstrates that from an employee perspective, the picture on empowerment appears mixed. Just over three quarters of employees claim to be actively encouraged to use their own initiative at work, but only 53% feel they can actually make mistakes. This seems to highlight the gap between what leaders say and what they actually do. It’s important that leaders accept mistakes as part of the process of empowerment.  Employees will learn by failing as much as succeeding, so ensure this does not dissuade employees from taking on decision-making responsibility.

Devolved decision making

When I was researching my book, Connected Leadership: How to build a more agile, customer-driven business, I identified devolved decision making as a key factor in creating a more agile and customer centric business.  Devolved decision making is fundamentally about enabling decisions to be made closer to the customer. This gives frontline employees the flexibility and freedom to operate, confident that what they are doing is in line with the corporate strategy and values. This empowerment helps develop a more agile organisation, better able to respond to customer needs and changing market opportunities.

The importance of devolving power

You cannot hope to achieve empowerment and to become more agile without devolving power.  If you as a leader can push decisions back to the people who are best able to make them, and coach and support these people so that they make decisions in a way that supports your goals, then you will have kick-started a more empowered approach and given yourself more time to concentrate on the decisions only you can make.

As one senior leader from a global bank said to me: “If you don’t share decision-making responsibility, you eliminate trust and you eliminate empowerment.  A mistrusting, disempowered organisation operating under very strict and defined boundaries is never going to flourish.”

Empowerment and Connected Leadership

Today’s most successful leaders connect people across the organisation to strategic goals and to customers by developing a shared agenda through having a clear purpose, strategic direction and strong values. As well as devolving decision-making responsibility, they encourage a culture of collaboration and teamwork. They stimulate a high degree of empowerment and trust that each person and team will perform to the best of their ability. They increase agility through developing a learning culture that drives innovation and ruthless prioritisation. They are connected leaders.

Empowerment at Mandarin Oriental

One great example of empowerment which features in the Connected Leadership book is Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, the award-winning owner and operator of some of the most luxurious hotels, resorts and residences located in prime destinations around the world. Its mission is ‘to completely delight and satisfy our guests’.

The business has standard operating procedures and a core set of standards, which are essential to delivering an outstanding experience to guests. There is clear yet minimal direction from the centre and individual hotels take responsibility for decision-making close to the customer. For example, some hotels offer a relaxed style of service, others are more formal. Although marketing is directed from the centre, promotions are very localised. Furnishings and menus at each individual hotel reflect the local environment.

Overall, there is an effective balance between a strong centre which oversees group performance as a whole, and hotel managers who act autonomously within the core set of guiding principles and strong service standards.

How to be an empowering leader

Success in the transition to a more empowered environment is not simply a case of delegating more decisions and hoping it works.  It needs to be based on persistent support and coaching from senior leaders, to develop in their teams the skills and judgement to make and execute sound decisions.  It also requires high-quality and simple management information to provide more junior managers with the insight needed to make sound judgements about the best course of action in any given scenario.  And it needs regular feedback for managers from senior leaders to help fine-tune their insight, judgement and ability to understand and manage risk.

If empowerment is a shared activity between more senior and more junior people, where the latter are receiving more power to decide and developing the ability to use it wisely, it can transform the more junior person’s confidence, capability to decide and execute effectively, and readiness for more senior roles.

Here are three core principles of empowerment that help leaders to make it work in practice:

1. Believe in others. Empowering leaders have a strong belief in the ability of others to do a great job. They trust others to be experts in their field, to make sense of situations, and to choose a path that they would choose or support themselves.

2. Set clear parameters. Empowering leaders can clearly communicate goals and explain each person’s role in achieving the goal.  This clarity provides others with a simple framework in which to take effective decisions.

3. Coach others. Empowering leaders actively develop others to take responsibility and become competent decision makers. The more that leaders coach team members to become great decision-makers the more confident they become in empowering their own teams, creating a positive cycle of reinforcement.

All of this is best happening when the ‘spine’ of the organisation is strong: the vision, the purpose, the values and the strategy are all clear, coherent and well understood across the business. With this in place, leadership responsibilities can be distributed more widely, safe in the knowledge that people have clear parameters and support in place to do what’s best for the business.  Underpinning all of this is the culture of the organisation, which needs to be focused on learning, not blame, on the customer, not on internal priorities, and on simplicity, not bureaucracy.

If you’d like to know more about creating a culture of empowerment in your organisation, please get in touch. We’d love to talk to you.


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