Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dilbert Got it Wrong - The Truth about Empowerment

My favorite comic strip is "Dilbert." I think about the workplace a lot, and most of the time Scott Adams is "right on" about the craziness that goes on there. I think it's pretty funny that the little HR weenie is depicted as an evil force.

In the Sunday paper recently, the pointy-haired manager tells his team, "I want all of you to feel empowered on this project." One of them says, "I'm going to use my empowerment to destroy this poorly conceived project from the inside." When the boss gets mad, Dilbert says, " you're saying we're not empowered to do what we think is best?"

I laughed (yes, out loud), as usual. You can see the entire strip in color here.

But there's a problem. The assumption that makes the joke work is in error. In the strip, the word "empowerment" is used to mean giving employees the power to decide what to do.

In fairness to Scott Adams, 95% of all corporations got it wrong, too, thanks to quite a few authors and HR departments who promoted the concept of empowerment back in the days of "self-directed teams." The idea was, give away your power as a manager, then stand back and watch all the wonderful things your newly motivated team members will do next.

R-i-i-ight. All that mistaken HR hooey came to no good and gave the concept of empowerment a bad name.

True empowerment involves a lot more than giving away authority. It means giving people everything they need to do their best work - things like tools, equipment, supplies, technology, transportation, facilities, communication, personnel, information, and time. And yes, authority - if they need it, and not without guidance and boundaries.

Giving people what they need to do their best is the true definition of "empowerment." They need these things, but they can't have access to any of them until management - those with the power - give it to them. And as you can see, they need a whole lot more than the authority to make decisions.

This industry-wide misunderstanding about empowerment, along with the inevitable backlash against the term, did unaccountable damage to productivity for over a decade. It caused managers to distrust the idea of empowerment.

But people do need to be empowered to do their best work. It's impossible for them to perform at a high level any other way. If managers want to get the very best from their people, they need to

1. Develop them to improve their ability to deliver. Focus on business/technical know-how, people skills and personal strengths.

2. Inspire them to want to deliver. Focus on their personal goals, values, needs, interests, etc.

3. Empower them with the resources they need to deliver.

Otherwise, they probably won't get the results they seek. To think otherwise is to be in denial.

So, managers everywhere, listen up.

Forget all that old HR balderdash from 20 years ago. If you want results, you have to empower your people. Not empowerment in the old, mistaken. narrow sense. But empowerment according to the broader, more realistic definition.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .


Poimane said...

Agreed-Interdepedent synergy, personal sacrifice,train,train, train.

Wayne McEvilly said...

All the SM leaders out there are in agreement on one thing: give your tweet a good "spin" - intrigue them with it - and they will come - what you did worked for me - Dilbert got me here and I stayed because what you had to say was "good reading" and applicable - I am a solopreneur and simply an observer when it comes to corporate management (I see certain companies pursuing a reckless course simply because they fail to take into account that their "employess" are human beings, a sad pervasive factor in our world today.
Of course I also arrived here because previous visits have given me confidence that what you have to say will be of value to your readers...
Thank you.