“Pave the Walkways After”: Empowerment Gives Way to Self-Management to Achieve Engagement

July 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

We have all seen the unsightly pathways through beautiful grass covered grounds where people walk off the designated pavement. Grounds keepers put up signs “Stay off the Grass” and/or string ugly nylon rope on short wooden posts in an effort to discourage the “bad pedestrian behavior.” They plant new seeds yet the walkways continue to exist.
One University took a different approach. They completed new ground construction and, although the final task was to decide where to place the walkways and then lay the permanent pavement, they waited to see where the people walked. After a short time the walkways were formed by the everyday little decisions of the people. The University leadership then gave the order to pave those areas but they didn’t decide where the pavement would go. The people did. The people didn’t do it in a committee designated by those leaders. They did it with their everyday decisions responding to the environment and their desire to be productive and accomplish tasks.
Our leadership has not evolved. We still discuss empowerment of employees like it is a reward bestowed by “the kings to the peasants” because the leaders have somehow become enlightened. Empowerment means supplying of power and/or authority by leaders to employees. That is NOT what the University did. Instead, they recognized the students, teachers, visitors, etc. already had the power to decide where they needed the paved walkways. They acknowledged they were NOT omniscient and instead waited to learn the right thing to do from the University participants. This is an example of self-management and Organizational Democracy. Empowerment must start to give way for Organizational Democracy for us to remain competitive.
For the past 100 years organizations and leaders have practiced the Frederick Taylor Scientific Management methods which hold the assumption that leaders and managers are omnipotent and omniscient. They oversee activity, make decisions about priorities, drive performance and hold people accountable for results. Like the grounds keepers, they create policy, cajole, and threaten the employees to change behaviors.
This authoritarian approach to management has caused immeasurable harm to employee engagement, productivity and quality. In an effort to minimize the damage many managers have discussed and practiced empowerment of employees. They began to give back what was never meant to be theirs in the first place, i.e. the freedom to make the best decisions which will optimize results.
Empowerment is NOT enough. Organizations still continue to suffer from low employee engagement results. In a the 2007–2008 Global Workforce Survey1 conducted by Towers Perrin (now Towers Watson) researchers confirmed significant dysfunction. Only 21% of employees were engaged in their work.[1] Other research (Gallup and Blessing and White) has confirmed this dismal number every year since 2007. With employee engagement being one of the most important outcomes of most organizations today how can we explain these dismal results? We are stuck in the old paradigm of Frederick Taylor Scientific Management and yet we are expecting different results. It’s truly insane.
The key is to acknowledge that traditional management stands in the way of employees making the right decisions. The key is to replace it with Organizational Democracy which encourages self-management not just empowerment. Like the University that acknowledged the brilliance in the chaos of the collection of the individual decisions that were made every day by the University visitors, leaders need to set up the context to capture the knowledge generated by the small actions and decisions made by employees, synthesize and analyze this knowledge and then reinforce it by paving the worn paths.
It’s a mindset change. It requires trust and a deeper appreciation for systems thinking. It requires a shift from trying to control people and trying to drive performance with outdated performance appraisals processes and unsophisticated pay-for-performance bonus plans. It requires acknowledging that the brilliance of people is naturally brought forth when leaders stand aside and wait to pave the walkways after.


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