If you don’t dismantle control, empowerment is just an aspiration
Empowerment and the decentralisation of control has been one of the most intractable challenges in the 25 years we have been focusing on new ways of working. Until the pandemic many managers’ attitude to control held back moves towards remote working. In the matrix, centralised control tends to inhibit flexibility, and in agile working the interplay between autonomous teams and traditional management causes challenges .
The fundamental problem is that everyone loves to be in control, but nobody likes to be controlled. When I have control it feels like empowerment, when you have control it feels like micromanagement. It is not a matter of whether you will have control in your organisation, often control is useful, the big question is who gets to exercise it and at what level?
In my career I always experienced positive outcomes when I pushed control further down the organisation and had it exercised closer to the action, I got better control and more empowered people at the same time.
Just about every organisation that we work with aspires to empowerment. Many have empowerment as part of their corporate values. Anyone with a management education in the last 30 years knows it is the right answer. But when you get down to doing it in practise, it can feel uncomfortable.
Some of our work is around the people processes involved in leading people on the journey to become more autonomous and empowered. But that is not enough unless we also change the formal control mechanisms in the organisation.
These are what we call the “carriers of control”; the formal approvals, delegation of authority levels, escalations and review meetings that constitute the practical exercise of control in an organisation.
If you want to move from aspiring to be empowering to actually delivering it, you need to dismantle some of these controls, or at the very least push them further down the organisation.
Why not try this now
- check your delegation of authorities levels, how much can an individual spend in your business without approval – why not double it?
- find a process that requires three signatures for approval and take it down to one signature, or better still none
- Look at the agenda and participation on your review meetings. Can you take some things off the agenda or change the participation so that this control is exercised at least one level lower than it is today
Are you feeling uncomfortable yet? This is what empowerment really is.
When we are working with groups of middle managers, they are often enthusiastic about senior leaders giving up control over these things to them. When we press them to apply the same approach to themselves and give away their control, they become less positive about the idea.
Senior leaders always feel there’s lots of autonomy in the organisation, because there is for them.
So when it comes to real empowerment, take a look at your carriers of control and systematically reduce them and/or move them further down the organisation. If you do not then empowerment will remain an aspiration but not a reality. If you are a leader you will probably have to reduce your control to support the empowerment of others.
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