Empowerment is Overrated


“Empower” is increasingly becoming one of those words that tends to make me a little twitchy, but interesting post nonetheless.

I agree that personal responsibility is an important part of this conversation. I subscribe to the framework Kurt Lewin laid out nearly 100 years ago:

B = f(P,E)

Behavior is a function of both the person and the environment.

When we say that we need to “empower” employees I start to twitch because it seems to me that we are saying that the environment is fine or acceptable and employees just need to deal with it and “step up”…and I think that is a fundamentally flawed place to start from. I think that the organizational environment is almost always dysfunctional and that should always be our first obligation.

I think that we almost always overlook this, accepting our organizational environment as the default context. And I think that in HR this underlying belief shows up in our actions and words all the time. For example, you said:

“As we discussed personal accountability of the employee, your comments quickly turned to how the organization bears the responsibility for making it “safe” to confront bad management. That’s a bit like choosing not to play a game unless you are certain you will win before you decide to play. There isn’t much accountability or responsibility in that equation on the employee’s side. The reality is that any environment where it’s “safe” to confront bad management probably has pretty decent management already.”

I disagree with pretty much every single word in this paragraph.

Choosing not to play a game unless you are certain you will win is actually something very, very different than what I am talking about. I am talking about having some rules in place that apply to all the players. If the game is rigged there is not much point in playing it, and it is bit ridiculous for you to think that you will “empower” me to do so. Choosing not to play the game unless you are certain about the outcome is actually what management (and at times HR) has a tendency to do when they punish or exclude truth-tellers. And when we say that places where it is safe to tell the truth have “pretty decent management” we are setting the bar really, really low for decent management.

The presence of truth-telling is not an indication of good management, it is simply an indication of an organization that actually values the truth and wants to create the opportunity for management to learn and improve.

I think that we should be advocates for personal responsibility for all employees and especially for senior leaders because they have a disproportionate influence on the working environment of others.

I think that if HR is going to break this cycle you are talking about, it is far less about “empowering” employees than it is about getting ridiculous bullshit (see organizational politics, HR policy, bad management, etc.) out of their way so that they can be honest with each other and with their supervisors, so that they can apply some common sense to their work.


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