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Why ’empowering your people’ won’t help your company grow

Empowerment.  It’s a real buzz-word.  Companies trumpet it loudly from the rooftops – ‘We empower our people’ emblazoned all over websites, brochures and adverts.  But have you ever stopped to think about what empowerment means and what it implies for your business?

Dan Pink has. In his seminal book, ‘Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, he’s pretty scathing.  He says the notion of empowerment ‘presumes that the organisation has the power and benevolently ladles some of it into the waiting bowls of grateful employees’.  I couldn’t agree more. Patty McCord, former Head of People at Netflix, says that empowerment implies that power has been taken away from staff in the first place.  Yes, exactly! 

To my mind, leadership is about communicating their worth and potential to people and then getting out of their way so that they can succeed at what they do.  This is quite different to ‘empowering’ them.

Command and control

Where does it come from, this idea of ‘empowering people’? There’s something in our history that makes us think that business is all about command and control. 

Maybe it comes from being told what to do at school. Or was it down to the industrial revolution where jobs were meaningless but a way of generating income?  At this point, we stopped being subsistence farmers. People came off the land, and we gave them boring factory jobs where they worked long hours.  There was no inherent self-motivation in this work.  So these people had to be managed.  The army is another classic example of command and control. Soldiers are conditioned not to question what they’re told to do, even if it means putting them in danger.

Theory X and Theory Y

This attitude of command and control permeates people’s views of the world of work.  It intrigued the social psychologist Douglas McGregor. So much so that he came up with two contrasting theories. He explained how managers’ beliefs about what motivated their people could affect their management style. These were labelled Theory X and Theory Y. They’re as relevant now as they were when he wrote his book in the 1960s. 

If you believe your team members don’t like their jobs and have little motivation, then, according to McGregor, you use an authoritarian management style. You’re very hands-on and micromanage to ensure work gets done.  Ring any bells?  Most people have worked in Theory X environments like this. 

Conversely, if you believe that your people take pride in their work and see it as a challenge, you’re more likely to adopt a participative management style. You trust people to take ownership of their work and do it effectively by themselves. You guessed it. That’s Theory Y. 

Unfortunately, the default seems to be Theory X in so many businesses.  Even though no one wants to be managed, there’s a disconnect.  Unless you teach someone that Theory Y is desirable behaviour, people automatically behave in a Theory X way.  This is borne out in the Stanford prison experiment.  Some undergraduates were made prisoners and the others into prison guards.  Within 24 hours, the guards were abusing the prisoners. 

Adopting a Theory Y approach

WL Gore was set up as an example of a Theory Y business. In their ‘lattice organisation’, anyone can talk to anyone and no one tells another what to do. It’s led to them becoming one of the 200 largest privately-held U.S. companies. Ricardo Semler documents his journey to adopt Theory Y in his business in ‘Maverick! The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace.’ It’s a good read full of brutal honesty and insight.  In fact, it was one of the first management books I ever read and I’ve been on the journey ever since.

As Dan Pink said, I fundamentally believe that people want to do meaningful work, get good at it and do it in their own way.  ‘Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose’ as Dan would put it.  And if you give them this, they don’t need to be ‘empowered’.

Avoiding being paternalistic

Are you paternalistic to your staff?  Be honest!  I was chatting to a CEO recently and he told me his staff were complaining that their chairs were uncomfortable.  What was his instinct?  To jump in and fix this for them.  This is Theory X behaviour. You need to spot that impulse and resist it.    

I told him about a study that was done on people’s behaviour.  A group of staff in three different offices were involved and had their happiness levels measured before and after the experiment. 

The first was a control group.  Nothing changed in their office and predictably enough, there was no change in their happiness levels.  In the second office, the management team spruced things up, putting in plants and pictures.  Finally, in the third office, the staff themselves were given a free rein to choose their own plants and decoration.  Interestingly, the happiness levels actually went down in the second group.  You’d think that management putting in plants would improve things but the opposite happened.  They had no involvement in the decision and so felt no motivation.  The biggest improvement in happiness came from the third group who had the autonomy to decide their own environment.    

The power of autonomy

You don’t need to empower your employees. Hire great people and then get right out of their way.  Give them autonomy from the moment they arrive.

Henry Stewart wrote the ‘Happiness Manifesto’ and I’ve heard him speak a number of times. He asks his audience to think about a piece of work they’re most proud of. He pauses as the audience thinks. Then he asks them to put their hand up if this piece of work was a result of being told to do something by their manager. No hands go up. Was it because they were solving a problem on their own within a structure?  All the hands go up.

Getting your people to own their destiny is so powerful. In fact, it’s five times more impactful if people own their decisions rather than be told what to do.  Yes, it takes longer. Yes, you’ve got to hire the right people, train them up and create the right environment. But this is the nub of High Performing Teams. 

Google knows this from its work on Project Aristotle. Creating psychological safety, giving work meaning, ensuring structure and clarity – these are all Theory Y behaviours. If you don’t do this early on, then people will start to learn Theory X behaviours from each other. The next level of managers that you need will have learned the wrong things.  This is why so many leaders are shit!

The inflexion points of growth

Let’s face it. People become managers by default most of the time. They’re good at something, so they’re promoted. And there’s no training. If you haven’t put some time into building the right culture, you’ll hit problems at specific points on your growth journey. 

A few weeks back, I blogged about the inflexion points of growth.  I was chatting to a private equity guy last week who said, ‘I love your podcast Dom.  I recommend it to everyone I meet, especially those looking to grow from 250 to 500 staff’.  That’s because, at around 300 people, businesses hit a tricky inflexion point.  They probably need to put in an additional management layer, but they haven’t defined their culture.  Some hard work needs to happen.   

We work with businesses of this size, using a Culture Canvas to get to the root of what they stand for.   How do they create an environment of psychological safety?  How do they make decisions?  How do they show up in meetings?  What behaviours do they punish and reward?  What are their rituals?  Without working through this, you create a culture that you don’t want, based on Theory X. 

Ultimately, you’re aiming for a self-managed organisation, allowing introverts to make a full contribution.  Potential clients tell me, ‘We need a culture of accountability.’  And yet, they tell people what to do all the time!  They’ll never get accountability unless a fundamental shift takes place. 

Leading by example

In his book, ‘Turn the Ship Around’, David Marquet said, ‘People who are treated as followers treat others as followers when it’s their turn to lead.’  You have to lead by example.  All of this starts with you as CEO and your Executive Team.  Ditch the traditional model of a hub and spoke where your business is run as a series of silos.  Your Executive Team needs to put loyalty to each other above anything else.  They are the number 1 team.  Nobody wins unless they all win.   

I was working with a CEO client recently, and she was overwhelmed.  So I said to her, ‘I think you misunderstand the role of your job.’  ‘What do you mean?’ she replied.  ‘Your role is to make yourself redundant so that you can go and do something more valuable in the organisation.  Your role is not to ensure that your team gets all of its work done.’    

Resist the urge to dive in and fill the gaps around your people. You’re training your team to act like children if you do this. Look through the lens of making yourself redundant.  Then you’ll start to develop your team so they can take over from you.  It may be harder for your ego.  And you’ve got to believe that the organisation will create the opportunity for you.  But if you don’t do this, you won’t be leading by example and teaching the right behaviours.  You’ll teach Theory X instead of Y.  

Establishing the right culture

I thoroughly recommend reading David Marquet’s book if you’re looking for ways to change your culture.  It’s described as ‘one of the 12 best business books of all time’.  When he took over the nuclear-powered submarine, Santa Fe, he discovered that the entire ship’s company had been infantilised.  They did nothing unless they were told what to do. 

So he set about shifting the culture away from a leader-follower model.  He pushed for leadership at every level.  He gave control to his subordinates and created leaders.  Before long, his crew became fully engaged and the Santa Fe skyrocketed from worst to first in the fleet.

One of the things that infuriated him was the language people used.  Instead of waiting to find out what to do, he encouraged them to say, ‘I intend to do x’.  And then do it.  By saying it out loud, the person owned it and if someone thought it was a bad idea, they had the opportunity to intervene.  I use this approach in my own business.  If one of my team says, ‘Is it ok if I take Thursday off?’ I ask them to reframe it to ‘I intend to take Thursday off’.  Then they’re not making it my problem.  

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So don’t talk about ‘empowering your people’.  If you disempowered them in the first place, you’ve got a major cultural issue on your hands.  Train all your staff in Theory Y behaviours.  Model this from the top down.  Then when you hit that 300 staff inflexion point, you’ll have a dynamic Executive Team who can teach your new managers the right behaviours.  This is how to grow a successful business.


Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here.

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