ECG Founder and Chairman, Peter Giuliano, addresses the need for empowerment within an organization and the means by which it can be accomplished.
In more than 30 years as a communication consultant, trainer, and advisor, I've examined and participated in a number of initiatives: re-engineering, total quality, diversity, organizational alignment, empowerment. Of all of them, the two that have yielded consistently positive results are quality and diversity. Many of our clients have established entire units focused on quality, resulting in gains in product and service excellence. And the push toward diversity has enriched both workplace and community, incorporating the talents and perspectives of individuals across the spectrum of variety and difference.
But the "empowerment" initiative has begun to pop up again. The original intent when the idea first arose in the 1980's was to enable people to operate within a wide margin of independence, to enact ideas for improving products and processes, to own their responsibilities and actions in a way previously not highly valued.
FREEDOM TO ACT CAN YIELD REWARDS
As customers or clients, many of us have experienced the relief of hearing the person on the other end of the phone or email respond to our concerns with a gracious, "Let me fix that." That person can make decisions on his or her own, often in real time. No waiting for a slow crawl through the bureaucratic maze in order to reach resolution.
As members of an organization, we have sometimes experienced the exhilaration of generating initiatives or concepts, refining them, planning their processes, and measuring their outcomes.
We have raised issues, proposed solutions, taken a different view that suggests unexpected or novel responses or actions.
WHAT SOUNDS SIMPLE MAY NOT BE
But in some cases, empowerment hasn't worked so neatly. Why is that?
Organizations cannot simply say "Be empowered" and then sit back expecting independent action to succeed. Nor can they simply hire an empowerment wizard to wave the wand of empowerment and then set up meetings to discuss how to make it work. They'd be better off hiring an architect to help design an environment in which people can self-empower.
There's an enormous difference between telling people that they are empowered and providing a structure through which they develop the ability to empower themselves. Creating such an environment, in my view, is a key responsibility of the person in charge of an organization, a division, or a team.
From my perspective as an owner of a company, I really cannot empower anyone. But through policy, opportunity, and encouragement, I can set the stage for its practice.
FREEDOM TO ACT DOESN'T MEAN FREE REIN
The composer Igor Stravinsky spoke my mind when he said, "I am never so free as when I am confined." Applied to business and industry, his perception means that when boundaries and limitations are set, when goals and consequences are clear, each of us is released to achieve through self-empowerment. We can act on our own authority within a landscape of composition, depth, and varying detail.
So as the buzz of empowerment again hovers, turn your attention to the primary condition that makes it work: constructing appropriate boundaries of action and decision. They are sometimes best set with the participation of stakeholders and may be redrawn through time, but they must be in place if empowerment and its organizational benefits are to thrive.
Done well, empowerment inspires reciprocal trust among employees, team members, colleagues, customers, and clients. When trust becomes action, you have succeeded in creating an environment where no one has been so free as when confined.