Be Ready for Empowered Employees

“I want my employees to feel empowered.”

“You realize empowerment means your employees start making decisions, right?”

“Oh… I want them to feel empowered. I didn’t say wanted them to be empowered.”

(from a presentation by Mardig Sheridan)

This is a further exploration of one of my notes from the Kata Summit a few weeks ago.

Think back to your own organizational history. When people were “empowered” how often did management struggle to retain control of everything?

These same managers complain about having to make every little decision themselves, and not taking initiative.

When organizations try to take on Toyota Kata there are a couple of common patterns that frequently emerge.

One is where most of the actual coaching is done by staff practitioners, with the higher level managers pretty much staying out of the mix. Previous posts not withstanding, that actually works pretty well up to a point.

The limit is reached when the next obstacle is a limiting policy or organizational boundary that can’t be crossed.

So… while this process does build the skill of individual managers at the middle and lower levels, it doesn’t do so well building a management team. Those enlightened middle managers can be in a tough spot if their bosses are expecting them to just be a conduit for direction from above. The coaches are working to engender independent thinking in the middle level of an organization that, by the actions of its leaders, doesn’t actually want it. (Yes, that is a bit black and white, the truth is more nuanced.)

The other common approach, and the one we encourage, is one where the coach is the responsible manager – usually the learner’s boss, or at least in the chain.

Novice coaches, especially if they are actually in the chain of responsibility, often struggle with the boundary between “coaching” and “telling the learner what to do.”

He often knows the answer. Or at least he knows an answer. Or, perhaps, he knows the conclusion he has jumped to with the limited information he has.

So, creating some rationale for why, the coach gives direction rather than coaching. This can be very subtle, and is often disguised as coaching or teaching. For this, I remind coaches to “Check your intent.” If it is to “Show what you know” then step back.

The learner may well have better information. Now this puts the learner in a tough spot. He is being encouraged to explore, yet also being told what to do.

Leaders who want to create initiative, leadership, and decentralized action in their organization have to be ready to give up on the idea that they know the best answers.

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