“The greatest danger for most of us I not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”—Michaelangelo
I read a Facebook posting by a friend recently who was commenting that their dog had been trained initially to stay out of the street and in the front yard using one of those “invisible fence” set ups. Initially, if the dog strayed outside of the fence, about 20 feet from the house, he received an uncomfortable (but mild) shock through his collar that was preceded by a vibration. After only once or twice, the vibration alone was enough to stop the dog (smart dog). Within a short while they turned off the invisible fence and of course the dog stayed within the yard. But then they moved to another house with a much larger property and didn’t worry about using any kind of fence because the dog could run freely pretty much wherever he wanted. This turned out not to be a problem because today the dog will not go beyond 20 feet from the house, even though the dogs owners have “empowered” him to run for acres.
Empowerment is a funny thing. As leaders who are trying to be effective, we learn that WE need to empower our employees. This approach has a number of assumptions: (1) That we have the ability to give freedom to our employees, (b) that our employees know that they have that freedom, (3)that our employees want to have that freedom and (4) that our employees have some idea what to do with the freedom once they have it.
These assumptions are the foundation of a lot of skepticism regarding the concept of empowerment. We believe that we have empowered our employees, a couple of people take advantage of us or even more likely, do nothing differently, and then we wonder why we bothered. Imagining employees that are truly empowered to make their own decisions and take their own actions is a bit frightening anyway. If there aren’t positive results in a short period of time we move on to the next leadership fad.
I don’t want to compare us, or employees, to dogs, but the principle is in large part the same. You as the leader can create the conditions in which your followers can feel empowered, but you can’t force them to use those conditions as you would like them to. The basis of freedom is their right to choose. Being empowered is the result of a personal decision based on trust, experience, and overcoming what we’ve learned about how we are to behave. If you want to empower your employees, you must also TEACH them how to be empowered and give them time to figure out how to operate without the fence.