Matrix Management

Empowerment in a Matrix – Part One: What and Why

An essential skill required for effective leadership in a matrix is the ability to Empower others, because the ability to tell or command is massively reduced. This is an idea that most people subscribe to in principle but are often confused by what it means in reality or more importantly, implies – particularly as it relates to the difference between Empowerment and Delegation.

The reasons most often given for Empowering or Delegating tasks to others are primarily:

  1. building capability close to the action
  2. developing skills and expertise in others
  3. creating a higher level of engagement
  4. allowing a greater flow of ideas and innovation within a team (ie ‘good ideas from anywhere’), and
  5. particularly in a matrix, enabling the leader to really add value by focusing on the ‘Big Picture’ rather than being constantly dragged into their silos.

Very few people would claim that any of these benefits are ones that are not worth having; so why does it sometimes seem so hard to achieve?

Often it’s a combination of organizational/national cultures and styles. Many of our European and North American colleagues will tell us that some more hierarchical cultures ‘just want to be told what to do.’ There is no doubt that one problem is the expectations of team members but in our experience, an even bigger problem is leaders’ expectations of themselves.

In many cultures, particularly Western ones, leaders are expected to ‘lead’ or ‘take charge’. This is a combination of being highly visible within both team or organization or more significantly, being able to give an almost instant response to any question from colleagues about activity within their perceived span of control. The fear that the inability to do so will make them look weak or out of touch is a major drain of energy, time and focus for leaders in a global matrix. The most obvious symptoms of this approach is a massive increase in communication needs, whether via meetings (face to face, conference calls, web meeting etc), e-mail or travel and a consequent decline in the speed of action.

In my previous career, I was always very impressed by the ability of senior Japanese managers to accept that they didn’t need to know everything – I recall an oil and gas project we were working on with a Japanese partner. On one occasion, I asked their Project Director a question concerning the commercial aspect. He looked at me and said “Tim, that’s why I have a Commercial Manager; best to ask him”. I was brought up in a culture where my response would usually be to say “Let me find out for you as soon as possible”.

So a vital leadership skill in a matrix and the starting point for any discussion of Empowerment or Delegation is the ability to challenge your own added value or to ask the question: “Does it need to be me?” A very experienced HR colleague from one of our clients used to challenge their audiences by saying to them “If your primary value to the organization is your ability to process e-mail, then I have a 15 year old at home who can replace you tomorrow.”

If the starting point is leadership mindset, the next questions become (a) What’s the difference between Empowerment and Delegation and (b) how do I actually do it?

Perhaps the simplest way of distinguishing between these two terms is that of choice: with Empowerment, the individual being empowered freely accepts the ‘monkey’ or issue; with Delegation, they are assigned it. The ultimate intention may be the same but understanding the difference is important because it determines the approach taken by both parties.

The key principle behind both techniques is to clearly understand the difference between Ownership and Involvement. Whether through delegation or empowerment, once a leader transfers ownership of the monkey to a colleague, they need to be very careful about accepting it back again. This does not mean that they cannot offer help if it is requested or they see obvious signs that the individual is struggling – it is not the same as repossessing the monkey, and being aware of the difference is often a challenge for leaders.

In Part Two of this series, we will look at practical tips for positioning these ideas within your team and the different techniques for both.

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