Why do service leaders find it so hard to empower frontline staff?

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If service leaders are serious about empowering their frontline support staff, they mustn't oversimplify it, says Andy Smith. 

Today, no-one I meet suggests we should build organisations where staff are less empowered, where more command and control is needed, and where workers are put to task under clear instruction and without the need to engage them.

But despite the obvious appeal of an empowered organisational culture, it seems hard to achieve. In Roffey Park’s annual Management Agenda survey for example, only 59% of respondents rated their leaders as effective at empowering them. So whilst we may have made some progress, clearly there is some way to go.  

But why is this so?

I think this is because we ignore some of the real complexities of working in an empowered culture and lack some key attributes to make it work. These I would describe as:

  • A lack of awareness of unconscious organisational dynamics.
  • A lack of perspective on the tensions of organisational life.
  • A lack of the skills required to negotiate the ‘interpersonal mush’ that empowerment brings.

To provide context for the above, let’s go back to the organisational life characterised by Taylorism at the turn of the century. Briefly, Taylor saw organisations as machines where, through objective measurement, efficient processes could be designed. As workers were seen as low skill and potentially feckless, an elite group of managers were required to control them to operate these processes through crude methods of behavioural reinforcement.

This way of thinking has something to recommend it. It is simple; you know where you stand and what roles to take. Decision-making and authority are clear. You are either one of the managers or one of the workers. You can negotiate your different interests adversarially rather than collaboratively. It reduces any anxiety arising from uncertainty.

Empowerment challenges this model fundamentally as authority is dispersed; decision-making is shared; people can be both leaders and followers; things can only be done in collaboration; trust and relationships are the pre-requisites for success; and reality is uncertain and subjective.

All this means that the unconscious processes that play out in organisations will be exacerbated. To protect themselves from anxiety of a perceived lack of leadership, followers continue to maintain their dependence on authority figures and traditional models of roles, structures and decision making are re-invented to give a sense of control.

What skills do leaders lack?

With so much to do and so little time to do it, leaders suck up decision-making leaving middle managers torn between the needs of their reports and conflicting management demands. In all this the customer may get lost.

This may sound extreme but I recently consulted to a successful organisation where the leadership team were explicit in their intent to push out responsibility and authority but found followers kept on delegating back up. And because they were used to making quick and good decisions, leaders, despite themselves, took these powers back but with an increased sense of frustration about ‘that lot down’ there. ‘Them down there’ bemoaned the empty rhetoric of empowerment coming from ‘them up there’.

If this collusive pattern sounds familiar to you, this is an unconscious dynamic at work. To negotiate it and find a new ways of working, leaders and their followers need to catch themselves in the pattern and act differently with what Barry Oshry would call system awareness rather than blindness

If you break the pattern, you still need the skills to negotiate the new way of doing business through collaborative working. With dispersed authority, decision making becomes a more complex phenomenon where people negotiate across competing agendas and relational interests.

With so much to do and so little time to do it, leaders suck up decision-making leaving middle managers torn between the needs of their reports and conflicting management demands.

There is huge space for potential misunderstandings and confusion: this is what Gervase Bushe labels ‘interpersonal mush’. To navigate the mush requires people who are skilful in conversation and capable of being clear about their own needs and experiences and open to and curious about those of others. They are able to work through conflict rather than dumb it down. It requires of people a level of emotional intelligence and skill that is difficult to sustain without development, practice and commitment.

The third ‘lack’ is the ability of leaders to live with the inherent tensions of working in an empowered culture.

In traditional models of leadership, competing agendas are resolved through alignment of vison, strategy, systems and processes and hierarchical decisions. Leaving aside whether it is ever possible to fully align things, in empowered cultures a new perspective is required, one that sees competing interests, agendas and micropolitics as the warp and weft of organisational life.

They are not problems to be resolved but tensions to be acknowledged, navigated and embraced. Networking becomes not an act of self-seeking political manoeuvering but a vital activity to build alliances to get things done. Initiating and hosting conversations to foster trust, explore differences and collaboration becomes the most important daily work of managers. These are not the things that take us away from our leadership priorities: they are the leadership priorities.

So, getting grown up about empowerment means we no longer idealise it or pretend it is easy.

Instead we start to talk about what is really happening in organisations and how together we can become more successful. We need to be comfortable with our own and others’ authority and agendas. We need to build effective authentic relationships. This is not an easy option but is something we need to continue to work on. I am energised by the prospect of this way of working. I hope you are too. 

Andy Smith is director of research at Roffey Park Institute.

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