The word “empowerment “ has been applied so broadly that it is now meaningless. It has become “a catch-all and therefore empty word” as pointed out in reference to women by Hadley Freeman in her excellent recent article (‘From shopping to naked selfies, how ‘empowerment’ lost its meaning’.)
Sadly, with the overuse of certain words, many terms that were once fairly understood have lost their clarity. ‘Leadership’ is just one of the casualties. How can we give empowerment back some useful meaning, and more importantly, how can we make empowerment real in an organization?
Giving empowerment an Operational Definition
In order to make empowerment real and happening as opposed to being some warm and fuzzy notion, we need to have an “operational definition” for it. Let’s give it one as suggested by Dr. Eli Goldratt: empowerment means that there is alignment between a person’s authority and the responsibility they are given. That’s it, pure and simple. In other words, people need to be given the authority to carry out all those tasks that come under their responsibility. This may sound obvious, but it is often not the case. Indeed, a great deal of time is wasted in organizations with frequent back and forth of people having to ask for permission/authority in order to get on with the job in hand.
What prevents us from empowering people successfully?
Our goal is, of course, to manage effectively. In order to achieve this we must satisfy two necessary conditions:
1. in order to manage effectively we must make sure the work is always carried out.
2. On the other hand, to manage effectively, we must empower our staff (we have recognized the value of empowerment).
Framing the problem as a conflict we can resolve
This brings us into a conflict: to empower our staff we must not interfere with their work. At the same time, in some cases, to guarantee that the work gets carried out we have to interfere.
What is the assumption underlying this second logical connection? In other words, why do we say we are obliged to interfere? Because people are not able to carry out the job on their own. Therefore, the only way to achieve effective empowerment is to make sure people are able to do their work on their own.
At t his point the key question we must ask ourselves is: Why can’t they do their work on their own?
We feel there are two valid answers to this question:
Answer number one: people do not have all the authority required to carry out the tasks they are responsible for. In order to realign authority and responsibility we use the Thinking Process tool called the Misalignment Cloud.
The Misalignment Cloud is a logical tool which allows us to identify and objectively represent a conflict in authority. This conflict generally exists between the task the person has to carry out and the rule of the system which prevents them from doing so. To resolve this conflict we must remove the gap between authority and responsibility. How can we eliminate t he need for managers to continuously intervene to solve the problem pr event ing the employee from carrying out their task? How can we systematically develop a new authority that allows this? How can we get people to accept new authority and act accordingly?
By writing the Misalignment Cloud, we can answer these questions and identify the cause of the misalignment bet ween authority and responsibility. This is often referred to as the “firefighting “ cloud as it refers to those frequent situations where managers have to step in to “put out the fire”. This is due to the misalignment of responsibility and authority.
In our next post we will look at answer number two and offer more detail on making empowerment operational.
Thinking, speaking and acting
Empowerment needs to mean what it says. When our language loses its meaning we have a serious problem. We are no longer able to make sense of things with the accuracy that is the reward of a rich vocabulary. Not only are we less able to distinguish shades of significance in our reality, we lose the ability not just to articulate but to form our very thoughts and how we interpret everything that happens around us. The Thinking Process Tools from the Theory of Constraints help us to think AND articulate our reality clearly and operationally. How can we manage without them?
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About the Author
Angela Montgomery Ph.D. is Partner and Co-founder of Intelligent Management, founded by Dr. Domenico Lepore. Angela’s new business novel+ website The Human Constraint looks at how Deming and the Theory of Constraints can create the organization of the future, based on collaboration, network and social innovation.