I’m going to talk about the impact which companies and society have on individual attitudes around ‘responsibility’. The reason being that challenging attitudes is a fundamental part of empowering your staff and reaping the benefits associated with this.
As I’ve touched on in previous posts, our organisational structures were set up, on the whole, to be very hierarchical. This is because they were heavily influenced by industrial era thinking. A typical organisational structure will therefore have tiers of senior management, middle management and junior management (team leaders, supervisors etc). The layers exist to control those below them. As our understanding of human psychology has improved so has our drive to offer more interesting work and to talk about ‘empowerment’. Of course the irony is we do this against many industrial era norms which remain contrary to this enlightened thinking.
A desire to have compliant staff was something so valued by industry, that author Ken Robison argues in his excellent presentation on TED Talks, that it has shaped the education system (whilst he refers to the United States the parallels with the United Kingdom are there). So we have a situation where by we encourage people to comply and this extends into the world of work. People are indoctrinated to obey and to have the belief that manager/teacher i.e. people in positions of authority know best. In certain circumstances this might be true and necessary, but I put it to you that it also encourages behavioural traits which are less helpful in our world today.
I also can’t help but look at the negative impact of modern society in the UK. We have a culture which is increasingly about blame and about people looking for others to do things for them. People expect things are disposable, people expect things from the government and people expect others to be responsible if things are not to their liking. This ‘blame culture’, which I would argue has been fuelled by both sides of the political spectrum (and the media), has in my mind, created a scenario where by people are reluctant to take responsibility. Society instils in people a sense of reliance which is contrary to the values of empowerment. In an ideal world it would be more about 'if you don’t like something then do something about it'! Unfortunately it seems that many would sooner blame someone else. This creates difficulties when we ask people to take responsibility which empowerment inherently does.
So when we talk about empowerment in the work place and when we talk about it authentically, we mean we are giving people more decision making concerning their work and their development. Progressive behavioural psychologists such as Maslow told us that is what human beings wanted and would be the best way to unleash the silver bullet of intrinsic motivation. I don’t dispute this high ideal and think it’s what we need to strive for to have both a more successful economy and society. However I also realise it’s not easy.
Unfortunately the negative indoctrination I referred to has created a situation whereby many people are reluctant to grasp true empowerment. The old norms valued compliance with sharp divides between ‘manager’ and ‘staff’ and it is difficult to break these down. For example a typical reaction by a member of staff when recalling their experience with training or development at work is to blame their manager when something has gone wrong. Blame is easy, but looking closer to home isn’t.
What does this mean for those of us who want to move to a more progressive way of working? It certainly creates unique challenges. For one it may mean changing the structure of your organisation...but I’ll leave that discussion for another time. More relevant to this post is challenging deeply held beliefs. A CEO I know told me it is far easier to continue managing by command and control because this is what people are used to (though he recognised it was far less effective in the long run). Therefore in making change happen, we first of all have to be patient. If we are asking people to consider their own development, when for years they’ve been told what to do, we can’t expect genuine empowerment to happen instantly. We must also remember that time honoured truth which is people don’t like change. For most, it’s easier to live with devil they know. In fact some people will never get on board with empowerment and may consequently have to leave your organisation. However most people will and as the wise psychologists told us, will grasp empowerment but it takes time and of course a willingness to accept a new paradigm around responsibility.
As ever I’m interested to hear your thoughts?