Here’s Proof Managers Need to Give Up Power

Power ButtonIt’s easy for top executives to dismiss us “power to the people” consultants. They think us too “soft” to make the hard decisions needed for business success. People need to be directed and controlled, or they’ll just spend their days shopping online and checking social media, right?

Leave aside that no one who knows me—a martial arts black belt—would call me “soft.” I go wherever the best evidence leads, and I now have solid proof that giving away direction and control to your workers will increase your business success.

That proof comes in the form of an ambitious meta-analysis, the kind of study that crunches the data from all available studies on a topic. According to their article in Journal of Applied Psychology, three scientists searched a bunch of sources “to identify published articles, conference papers, working papers, and doctoral dissertations” on empowerment. The total number of usable studies, after a lot of filtering, came to 142. They then analyzed the result of all of those studies to see if there were consistent patterns regarding what creates empowerment, and the impacts empowerment has.

One hint is contained in the way the researchers defined that term “psychological empowerment” based on the studies. It means “intrinsic task motivation reflecting a sense of control in relation to one’s work and an active orientation to one’s work role…” That word “intrinsic” is crucial. It indicates the person wants to do the task, for internal reasons, not because you are pushing them.

A clear consensus arose that higher empowerment for individual workers equals higher job satisfaction and commitment to the organization, and reduces stress and intention to leave. This was true whether those outcomes were self- or supervisor-reported. The costs of high turnover are well known, and job satisfaction improves work performance. As the article highlighted, “empowerment is an effective approach for improving employee attitudes and work behaviors in a broad range of contexts (i.e., industries, occupations, and geographic regions).”

Having a “bad attitude” is an over-used cop-out as the reason for firing people, so I assume most managers would like improved attitudes. Improved behaviors are pretty much required for good company performance, when you recall the word “company” refers to the people in it. Ergo, empowerment improves company performance. Setting aside the moral arguments for empowering people, you are hurting your company’s profitability (or nonprofit’s effectiveness) if you refuse to give up control.

The meta-analysis indicated teams that feel empowered, and feel they have more choice over how to accomplish tasks, also “believe that they have the collective ability to accomplish work-related tasks and that these tasks have an impact or significant importance for their organization.” Team empowerment was strongly related to performance as rated by people outside the team, a correlation of +0.43. For comparison, that is higher than the relationship between individual performance and either personality or intelligence!

Overall, results for individual and team empowerment were effectively the same, suggesting they operate in similar ways. They were also similar across industries and countries, with minor exceptions. For instance, empowerment was a little more related to job satisfaction in service industries than in manufacturing, and to performance in Asian countries than others.

Now that I have you salivating to empower your people, how do you do so? The study looked at both “contextual antecedents,” meaning organizational and situational factors (“E” and “F” in my last post), and factors related to individual worker traits. It turned out that “all of the contextual antecedents, namely, high-performance managerial practices, socio-political support, leadership, and work design characteristics, exhibited relatively strong relationships with psychological empowerment.” These antecedents were related to team empowerment as well.

As for traits in individuals, positive self-evaluation had a positive relationship to sense of empowerment; job level, tenure, and age less so; education and gender, none. The scientists cautioned, “these individual characteristics show a weaker influence than the contextual variables… and we caution readers not to make substantive interpretations, given the small magnitudes of these associations.” Yet again evidence says changing your organization’s environment is a far more powerful way of getting what you want as a manager than focusing on individual workers’ traits.

Fully embraced, Agile does the trick. Sayeth the Agile Manifesto: “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams,” and, “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.” Truly adopt these principles, and you have created many antecedents for team and individual empowerment.

The problem is, too few companies actually do so, and many Agile coaches are complicit. I will draw from the study’s examples of “high-performance managerial practices,” one of the contextual antecedents, to point to many failures across the Agile-Industrial Complex and its clients:

  • “open information sharing”—Most companies I encounter treat their employees more like potential spies than trusted colleagues. Management hands down budgets, priorities, and goals without sharing the decisions behind them, and hides problems until surprise priority changes (or layoffs) are announced. Meanwhile Agile coaches will try to implement methods without fully explaining the rationale behind each, and focus on those techniques without pushing their clients to adopt governance changes like “open book management.”
  • “decentralization”—The vast majority of work organizations are top-down bureaucracies with silos given control over their functions across the entire enterprise. To maximize empowerment and effectiveness, they should be operating as a group of small businesses pushing most decisions down to the program/team level. Again, most Agile coaches seem scared to confront executives over those issues.
  • “participative decision making”—Even the most empowering companies I’ve dealt with only allowed teams to make decisions about how to do the work, not what work should be done (strategy, priorities, contract terms, scope, etc.). The latter is what the Manifesto envisions by putting teams in direct contact with customers. Agile coaches let those companies get away with this by, for example, agreeing to meet the PMO’s waterfall-based demands instead of refusing to follow practices irrelevant to Agile.
  • “extensive training”—I have seen consistent evidence going back to my teamwork coaching days that most companies invest far less of their money and workers’ time into training than do top-performing companies. Furthermore, formal training is rarely reinforced through ongoing coaching by managers. Hiring teams of external Agile coaches and Scrum Managers lets managers off the hook for changing their and their workers’ behaviors directly.
  • “contingent compensation”—This means paying people for performance instead of time. See “Team Pay for Teamwork” on my Full Scale agile™ site for a variety of schemes to compensate people for improving team, not just individual performance. In fact, team and teamwork results need to be a substantial part of the workers’ overall compensation. I’ve met zero Agile coaches who actively pushed for changing the compensation schemes in their clients.

Even if really empowering workers along the lines of a Ricardo Semler or Zappos does not make sense to you given your past experiences, make yourself do it. Giving away a substantial part of the power you have accumulated will give your organization better performance and happier workers.

Seems to me that would make your life happier, too.


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Source: Seibert, Scott E., Gang Wang, and Stephen H. Courtright (2011), “Antecedents and Consequences of Psychological and Team Empowerment in Organizations: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Journal of Applied Psychology 96(5): 981.

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