– Beyond empowerment


Katrina Marshall Dyrting

My fears are limiting your potential

So, let us turn our attention from the empower-ee to the empower-er. Empowering others means letting go of control, and that, for many of us, can be a pretty scary thing to do. Here is a set of fears listed in a Harvard Business Review article “How to Give Your Team the Right Amount of Autonomy” by Deborah Ancona and Kate Isaacs:

  • Fear that people will go off in too many directions – that they won’t be aligned with strategic priorities.
  • Fear that throwing out bureaucratic rules will mean that people don’t know how to make decisions.
  • Fear that freedom to innovate will result in too many poor-quality initiatives and take resources away from the best ideas.
  • Fear that there will be too many risky ventures without multiple levels of oversight.

The article lays out a number of guardrails you can put in place to address these fears, to protect the empower-er, and they are great if you do not actually want to give away power. Just as the picture used in the article shows (below), it is all about making sure that appropriately sized cages are in place. I wonder how big those balloons might grow and where they might fly if they were not caged in.

In a typical hierarchical organisation, these fears make sense. If the people that I empower go off in too many directions, do not know how to make decisions, take resources away from other ideas or take too many risks, the result is that I, the empower-er, will look bad. The reputation and respect that I have spent time and effort building will be ruined.

Not only is there a risk that the empower-ees get it wrong, but there is also a risk that they get it too right. If it turns out that they do an exceptional job, they might look better than me – and how might that look to my superiors? What if my subordinates’ reputation surpasses my own? Will I still be needed?

A friend of mine works for a large pharmaceutical company where the organisation is currently rolling out an agile way of working. She works as a manager and had succeeded in helping her team to become self-managing. She was terrified to tell her boss of her success because she had literally just succeeded in writing herself out of her previous role. She fears losing her job.

In all hierarchical organisations, empowering – truly giving away power – is a losing game, which is why we need those cages to keep us safe.

Although these fears make sense for the sake of protecting ourselves in our current hierarchical way of working, they also hold us back from what we could achieve if we stopped building cages. From climate change to global pandemics and beyond, the most significant challenges we face require another level of collaboration. If we want to collaborate rather than build cages, we all need to grab hold of those fears, look them in the face and decide to take a different course of action.

How to get started? Let us begin by reconsidering our relationship with power.

A new relationship with power: a relationship with new power

The fears listed above exist in a world where power grows as you ascend the organisational chart, and you do what you can to keep it that way. A world where there is a finite amount of power, and we must each protect the share of it that we have earned. However, there is an alternative way to think about power; Heimans and Timms, authors of the book “New Power”, describe the key differences between “old” and “new” power:

Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.”

New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.”

These are social constructs: our thoughts and choices about the way we interact with each other (our culture) can influence our reality. If we begin to change our view, then our structures must adapt accordingly.

The definitions above can be used to examine our own behaviours. What does your behaviour say about you? Who do you want to be?

  • Do you often feel like a bottleneck in your work and projects? Or do you feel shoulder to shoulder with your colleagues at the front line of the challenge you are tackling?
  • Are you fearful that others will get credit for something that you have initiated? Or do you celebrate your colleagues for finding solutions that you were not able to find?

If we want to change our conversations, the way we work together and the way we organise ourselves, each of us must become aware of our “old power” behaviours, evaluate if those actions amount to who we want to be and begin to react differently to the triggers we are faced with on a day-to-day basis.

What makes this difficult is that these “old power” behaviours, and the fears that motivate them, have become our default setting. It may, therefore, take some effort to recognise what that setting looks like for you.