Defining Leadership

Leadership Skill: Empowerment Uncertainties

Harvey Robbins asked:

Between the subjects of goal setting and decision making is an enormous crevasse, into which teams fall, then fester and stink up the joint. This is the area of boundary management – or in the case of team failure, mismanagement.

Empowerment is a form of decision making that involves individual, not team decisions. Yet it is probably the most important kind of deciding that occurs on teams.

Here’s the deal: Organizations create teams to achieve certain goals. They may tell the teams, usually quite vaguely, that they are “empowered” to some degree to do whatever is necessary to achieve the goal.

Or they may not.

Either way the team has been set up to fail. Either the team feels it has no authority or leverage to carry out its mission, or it is confused about what its authority or leverage really amounts to.

It is deeply depressing to a team to go to all the trouble of learning how to solve a problem, only to be paralyzed, unable to implement that solution, because it doesn’t know if it’s allowed to. Or worse, to implement the wrong (but defensible) solution because it doesn’t think management will go for the right (but ambiguous) one.

On the other hand, it is terrifying for management to empower people to make decisions in advance without any assurance those decisions will be sensible or defensible. Many an empowered team, thinking its decision-making authority to be vast and absolute, learns to its chagrin that its empowerment was really more of an expression, a figure of speech, than a blank check.

It’s a drag on both sides when managers believe they have empowered a team to make decisions, only to find out later that the team didn’t believe a word of it. The team gets into trouble, which was what it was trying to avoid, and now the manager has less reason to trust the team than before.

So, what can be done?

First, write the word “empowerment” on a clean sheet of paper, fold the sheet carefully into sixteenths, and then chuck it in the wastebasket.

From now on, instead of empowerment, think in terms of the phrase “boundary management”. For there can be no empowering without defining what the power is, who has it, where it starts, and where it ends.

Boundary management is a method for negotiating and agreeing to a set of constraints or boundaries within which team members are free to make decisions on their own. These boundaries will vary depending on the degree of experience or expertise of each team member.


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