Why You Can Never Empower People, but You Absolutely Must Engage Them

Leaders have wasted a lot of time and money on two of our favorite Business Buzzword Bingo terms for the last three years: empowerment and engagement. Here’s the real skinny.

Gallup says a whopping 70% of people are disengaged from their work. That’s critical because the very few companies with high engagement enjoy much higher net profit margins and five times the shareholder return.

Engage People By Empowering Them?

The standard answer is that if you empower them, they will become engaged. But that is an answer developed within a command and control mindset, which is not the place to find out how people are empowered. As Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.”

In a recent discussion with an elderly billionaire who had made his money in the 80’s and 90’s, he was convinced that, “It is the job of the CEO to empower people.” He bristled dismissively when I suggested people might not need him to empower them. Einstein’s quote came to mind, and I realized he was trying to solve the problem from the mindset that had created it. He was well known as a top-down, command and control manager, and he was taking special delight in having the power to empower people, by sharing a little of his power with them.

Thank You, But I’m Already Fully Empowered

But empowering someone this way is a subtle way of communicating, “I’m still in power, and the only reason you have any power at all is because I granted a little of mine” – a patronizing and perhaps even belittling view of empowerment. The message is, “You don’t show up fully equipped to contribute – without me, your personal empowerment is insufficient.”

The reality is, we can’t empower people. They show up empowered and all we can do is suffocate their innate ability and desire to contribute, innovate, make decisions and generally be self-managed adults. Empowerment is the absence of the heavy hand, just like an apple seed only grows where you don’t put down plastic. The seed shows up empowered and ready to sprout. I can’t add anything. All I can do is smother it and keep it from sprouting.

But Give Me a Reason I Should Engage With You

Engagement, however, is all on us. While people show up empowered – it’s who they are, the seed is complete – they are likely to show up not engaged in any way. The apple seed can remain just a seed for a very long time if the conditions aren’t right to grow. In the same way, people will be in neutral until you give them a reason to use their empowerment to make the company better. Engagement is the addition of leadership, principles, resources, guidance, training, community, teams and incentives – like the addition of water, sun, fertilizer, and good soil are to growing the apple seed. The seed shows up fully complete and ready to grow, but won’t until it sees the right conditions to do so.

How To Engage People

Engagement requires that we do a very few things right. We must engage everyone in building a clear vision of where we are going, and require that they play a part in creating a plan to live it out.

Engagement also requires that we build an organizational model that encourages distributed decision-making and other forms of participation formerly reserved only for hierarchical managers. And if we expect people to be fully engaged, we need to invite them to have more control over their time, and to be treated like self-managed adults. We also need to be more deliberate about recognition, rewards, relationship-building experiences, and participation in incentives programs directly related to agreed upon results.

The Bottom Line

Empowerment is the absence of the heavy hand; the absence of black plastic over the seed. Engagement is the addition of reasons to get involved – leadership, vision, tools, values, resources, guidance, training, metrics, and relationships. Get out of the way and people will show you how empowered they already are.

Don’t waste time trying to empower people. They already are. Just give them a reason to be engaged, give them the resources they need to grow, and get out of the way. And watch your company take off.

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Why It Isn’t Hard to Find Self-Managed Stakeholders

If you believe you can’t…

We regularly highlight companies in every sector with a few dozen to tens of thousands of Stakeholders who all function without managers. How can they find thousands of Stakeholders, when others seem to have trouble finding just a few?

Gallup and some others claim around 20% of the workforce is actively disengaged – you ask them to do X, and they will work hard to do X minus. They also claim around 20-30% of the workforce is actively engaged – they will do X plus, when you only ask for X.

That leaves 50-60% of the workforce that Gallup says aren’t actively engaged or actively disengaged. They call them simply, “not engaged”; bumping along.

So these stats show 70-80% of the workforce is, at best, “not engaged” in their work. Yet our experience is that it is very easy to find actively engaged, fully committed, self-managed Stakeholders who don’t need to be managed, just led. W. L. Gore has 10,000 and Semco has 3,000, both with no managers. Scores of other companies, including our own have a few to tens of thousands, all with nobody managing them. And nobody goofs off. How can that be? Won’t people take advantage of that freedom and turn it into a license to ease off the gas?

No. And here’s why.

LCD Management MAKES People Disengaged
The 50-60% that everyone claims are “not engaged” are followers, and are simply responding to the work world you created for them to live in. If you believe people need to be managed, and don’t have the motivation to take care of their commitments at work, then you will create a workplace structure that is designed to “manage” them into productivity.

LCD Rules vs. HCD Values
This mindset results in a common leadership mistake – LCD Management. Over time (or right away), managers create “lowest common denominator” rules. In response to a few people doing stupid or lazy things, managers create rules to ensure no one can repeat it. The result is a workplace designed around preventing people from being stupid and lazy. People hired into these workplaces work to the lowest common denominator, exactly what you expected of them.

The answer is HCD leadership – decide what would free people up to be as smart, motivated and responsible as possible, and design a workplace to that “highest common denominator”. People hired into that workplace will understand that by being a self-motivated, self-managed adult, they will have ownership over their lives at work, and make more money. It’s motivating to reach up to attain something (HCD Leadership), not to just work a little harder than necessary (LCD Management).

Values, not Rules
An LCD workplace is full of rules to keep people from doing something stupid or lazy. An HCD workplace is nearly void of rules and is instead full of values that guide and drive people to be and do their best when no one else is watching. If your workplace is built around values, you will attract Stakeholders, not employees.

When you build an HCD workplace, you attract the 20-30% of the workforce that wants to be “fully engaged” – natural Stakeholders; AND the 50-60% that will play whatever game is presented, will reach for the stars because that is the game you’re playing.

Attract the 70-80%, not the 20-30%
Build an LCD workplace and you can expect 70-80% to act like employees who need to be managed and told what to do (children). Build an HCD workplace and you’ll find that 70-80% of the workforce will jump right on board. The 20-30% that are fully disengaged will find your workplace uninviting and will either not apply, or will leave.

W. L. Gore found 10,000 Stakeholders and no employees. With HCD Leadership, you should do just as well finding all the Stakeholders you want.