The myth of empowerment: how to give your direct reports real ownership over their work

Myths at work
AndreyPopov/iStock
Bruce Tulgan
RainmakerThinking, Inc.
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There are several factors that prevent managers from taking a stronger hand in leading their people to success. One of those is the Myth of Empowerment: that the way to empower people is to leave them alone and let them manage themselves. This is false empowerment, and probably the number one myth in the workplace.

What is the reality? Almost everybody performs better with more guidance, direction, and support from a more experienced person. So why do managers often second-guess their own instincts to take a stronger hand? Precisely because they have been ingrained with the mantras of false empowerment. When managers do take charge, employees often recite these same mantras, complaining, ‘Don’t micromanage me!’

The funny thing is that most cases mistaken for micromanagement turn out to be undermanagement in disguise:

Case number one...

The employee must check with his manager every step of the way in order to make very basic decisions or take very simple actions. Is this really a case of micromanagement? No. If an employee is unable to make very basic decisions or take very simple actions on his own, that’s almost always because the manager has not prepared the employee in advance to do so.

Someone has to tell him, ‘If A happens, do B. If C happens, do D. If E happens, do F.’ That’s how you equip an employee to make decisions and take action. Someone has to tell the employee exactly what to do and how to do it. Someone has to make sure he understands how to accomplish his tasks and carry out his responsibilities.

Someone has to equip the employee with the tools and techniques of the job. That someone is the manager.

Case number two...

The employee makes decisions and takes actions without ever checking in with her manager.

When the manager finds out about those decisions and actions, the employee gets in big trouble. Burned for taking initiative? Yes. Micromanagement? No. If an employee does not know where her discretion begins and ends, that’s because the manager has not spelled out guidelines and parameters for the employee up front.

Someone has to painstakingly clarify for her what is within her authority and what is not. Someone has to repeatedly spell out what she cannot and may not do. That someone is the manager.

Case number three...

The manager remains tangled up with the employee’s tasks or the employee gets tangled up with the manager’s tasks – in the end, you just can’t tell which tasks belong to the manager and which ones belong to the employee.

Isn’t that micromanagement? No. This is failure to delegate. Some work is hard to delegate, but if the work cannot be delegated properly, it is the manager’s job to figure that out and act accordingly.

Someone has to spell out exactly which tasks belong to the employee and which ones belong to the manager. Someone has to tell the employee up front in advance exactly what is to be done, where, when, and how. That someone is the manager.

All of these cases often misconstrued as micromanagement turn out to be cases of undermanagement. That’s why I often say that micromanagement is a giant red herring. Is there even such a thing as micromanagement at all? Of course, some managers overdo it, but the vast majority underdo it.

Real micromanagement is quite rare. Look at the basics of management: Delegate properly so each employee knows which tasks belong to him and him alone. Spell out exactly what is within his authority and what is not. Equip him with the tools and techniques of the job. That’s not micromanagement, that’s just plain management. Anything less is undermanagement.

What does real empowerment look like?

If you want to truly empower people, then you simply must define the terrain on which they have power.

That terrain consists of effectively delegated goals, with clear guidelines and concrete deadlines. Consistently articulating with every direct report the appropriate standards and expectations – what to do and how to do it – is the hard work of leading, managing, and supervising.

Within clearly articulated parameters, a direct report has power. Limited power? Yes. But it also has the great virtue of being real power.

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