Last week I called Julie, a long-time friend. She had been promoted 6 months ago and I wanted to hear how she was doing.
“To be honest, not so great” she said. “How come?”, I asked. “ As a matter of fact, I’m having some serious doubts about this promotion. It now feels like an empty box”. She went on to explain how empowered she had felt after getting the well-earned promotion. And how eager she had felt to take on the new responsibility. But as the first months passed by, she grew increasingly frustrated by the little progress she was making. And when she looked at it from a distance she realised her responsibility had grown but she didn’t have the resources to deal with it.
“I get it”, I said. “A typical example of the empowerment trap”. Julie was puzzled. “What do you mean?” she asked. “You see, there’s nothing wrong with empowerment” I answered. “But it’s not enough, indeed it can be an empty promise. If I give you permission to drive my car, I’m empowering you. When I then hand you the keys and tell you where I parked it, I’m enabling you to drive it. Only then empowerment becomes meaningful.”
Too often organizations pride themselves about empowering their people. But when they fail to consequently enable them, they are failing on their promise. If not to say, they’re behaving hypocritically. And the disappointment flowing from that can seriously damage employee engagement.