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The Power of Candor

How empowering leaders disempower their people

By September 18, 2021No Comments

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Todd Holzman: Hi, I’m Todd Holzman, organizational consultant, and this is my video blog. Today I want to talk to you about how traditional approaches to empowerment actually end up disempowering people. I just got off the phone with a [Sierra Churo 00:00:20] client of mine who is the head of HR for a division of a large European based consumer goods company. I can’t tell you their name for confidentiality purposes, but you probably eat or lather on one of their products almost every day, and I want to share with you the conversation I just had with them, because he asked me a question that a lot of mine/our clients ask us, how do we improve empowerment in the organization? How do we give people below the top leadership team a greater sense of personal responsibility?

So of course I asked them lots of questions about the situation before just giving him kind of an expert answer, and it turns out they did an employee survey and there were two very interesting findings that came out of the survey. Number one, that employees feel that if they honestly express their opinions about something, they fear negative consequences. And two, that their ideas won’t be taken seriously by top management. And then I asked him, “So what are your thoughts about how to deal with this problem?” And his response was a very kind of typical one, “I think we need to create a more comfortable environment for the employees so they feel more psychologically safe to kind of speak their minds and offer their ideas.” And on the surface this is a very kind of appealing idea, but I also know that this company is famously, or infamously, known for being very nice. I know the leadership team, I see the way they interact, probably more than anything they avoid having difficult conversations with their people, and they have a more maternalistic, paternalistic attitude toward them.

So these are not the kind of managers one would ever be afraid of, and again, this culture is notoriously nice. So I thought probably something else is going on, and my first response to him when he said, “I think we need to create a more comfortable environment and to change the behavior of the managers so they’re more inviting of people’s ideas.” And I said, “You know I actually think that could be very disempowering, and so therefore your whole approach to solving the empowerment problem can make empowerment worse.” He said, “Well, why is that?” I go, “By you’re saying the problem is the managers, you’re blaming management, and you’re taking responsibility off of the employees shoulders, and putting it on to managers shoulders, despite the lack of evidence that managers are doing anything, which is really creating fear amongst the employees.”

I said, “The minute you take responsibility off somebody’s shoulders and put it on the responsibility on manager’s shoulders, that’s called disempowerment.” And he said, “Wow, that’s very interesting.” And then he said, “I never really thought of it that way.” And I said, “Yeah, I know that.” And then I said to him, let me get this right, “How do you know, first of all, do you have any data that tells you that people have ever experienced any real negative consequences for honestly expressing their view on an organizational problem, or issue, and are their ideas just getting rejected wholesale? It could be the quality of their ideas, it could be the way they’re expressing their concerns and their ideas, maybe there’s a lot left to be desired in how they simply express themselves and the quality of their thinking, and if that’s true, and unless you deal with that, you know you’re never going to solve the empowerment problem by trying to create a more comfortable environment.”

I go, “Why don’t we actually empower these folks by equipping them with the ability to effectively express their perspective, to effectively express their ideas, so that all the negative worst case disaster fantasy scenarios that they paint in their heads don’t come true, and in fact, management, or at least the top team, ends up responding favorably because the quality of thinking, and the way they’re expressing that thinking to upper management, actually is highly effective, that’s how you empower people. And then through the way that we would work with them in helping them express their perspectives, and express their ideas, they would develop a new found sense of competence, they would find that management is actually responding very well to them, because the quality of the thinking and the way they express their ideas are very good, and their view of reality, and whether there would be negative consequences, whether management is really open to their ideas, would actually fundamentally change because we made them more competent, versus making the environment more comfortable.

And then through that process of developing them, we would certainly learn things about the way they are being managed that leads them to feel that it’s not safe, or that maybe doesn’t create enough of a sense of personal responsibility, people to step up and speak up and express their concerns, and express their ideas.” And he quite liked that way of thinking, And tomorrow I’m going to facilitate a conversation around just this with the top leadership team, and we’ll see if there’s really something to they’re just these scary managers. I doubt that it is, and I think they’re getting just sucked into their paternal and maternal impulse, and I think what they’re going to realize is that the best thing that they can do to empower their people is to equip them with the ability to come to the table with better thinking, and to express a lot more powerfully and effectively. I’ll let you know how it goes, thanks for listening.

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