Hey Boss: Stop Trying to “Empower” Me
July 28, 2016

Hey Boss: Stop Trying to “Empower” Me

by Brian de Haaff

Have you noticed a certain trend in leadership circles? Career advice columns and business consultants are encouraging leaders to “empower” their teams to promote accountability and achievement.

When faced with employees seeking guidance, these five magic little words supposedly lead to breakthroughs: How can I empower you?

Magic words are better left in fairy tales than brought into the workplace. With no action behind it, the idea of “employee empowerment” becomes nothing more than an empty promise. Understandably, it becomes a frustrating loop for all. Employers expect a miraculous transformation — and employees are left wishing for something far more valuable from their leaders.

True leaders challenge employees to work to their potential, encourage communication across teams, and eliminate obstacles. Empowerment is part of their DNA — not something they make happen in an instant.  

I know from experience that growing a team is hard work. I also know that most leaders have good intentions and are sincerely trying to help.

But I suspect that in some companies, this notion of empowerment has gone awry. And just like an overly dramatic plotline, it brings unnecessary complexity and confusion where clarity and focus is sorely needed.

Here is why leaders should stop talking about empowering their teams:

Breeds cynicism Your team does not need power. But they do need you to share the company’s overall vision and goals — and then give them space to do their best work. But if you start espousing empowerment without action to ground your words, it is nothing more than disingenuous corporate jargon. And that breaks down trust.

Easy cop-out At some companies, empowerment really means “I give you the power — now go solve your own problem.” (“Oh, and please do not tell me when things go wrong, because I do not want to be tarnished by your failures.”) Sarcasm aside, this hollow tactic shifts all responsibility back to your team — when they need your help. It is classic avoidance. Skews dynamics The word “empower” means, literally, to give power to someone else. But the very idea that you can bestow or take away power from others elevates you above your team. This thinking can inflate your ego and impact your ability to unite teams effectively — and eventually leads to diminished respect.

This may be shocking to many managers, but is not your place to be the hero. Instead, your teams need you to be clear with expectations and make sure they have the space to achieve them — and to be happy doing it. You are not there to slay the workplace dragon through the wand of empowerment.  

Your team already has the power to act or not to. And the more they are able to exercise this autonomy within a supportive and responsive environment, the happier and more motivated your team will be.

In fact, the only person you should be concerned about empowering is yourself — to be the best leader you can to the team that needs you.  

Start communicating meaningfully — not with empty “magic” words. Share the strategic vision with your team and explain their role in achieving it. Check in regularly, not just every six months. Spend time talking to them, listening to them, and responding. Encourage them to go after their goals, and support their efforts to do so. Recognize effort and give credit when it is due.

That is powerful leadership in action.

What do you think — should leaders be in the business of empowering others?

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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