Line managers getting ‘empowered’


‘Empowered’. Seemingly, thecurrent ‘buzz’ word when it comes to management practices? Well, it has beenaround for a long while. The ‘dictionary definition’ for ‘Empowerment’ is: to give power or authority, or to give abilityto, enable or permit.


Taking this definition literally,there are several challenges that need to be addressed by organisations, ofwhatever size. There is the management cliché that the person with the mostpower and authority in a company is the Managing Director’s personal assistant.They, after all, may choose who speaks to ‘the boss’ and for how long, as their‘diary is very busy at the moment you see.’ Power also suggests influence, soin other words, when managing scarce resources – such as finding the employeeswith the right knowledge, skills and attitudes to succeed for YOUR project –line managers need to know who has the power and influence in the organisationso they can deliver.


If we look at ‘giving abilityto’, this brings us more into the world of learning and development. The roleof any manager needs to have a core of self-development, be it in technicalskills relating to the role or more likely, management skills per se – how tobudget, what project management looks like, how to juggle people skills and howto ‘sell the benefits, not the features’ (thanks Neil) of your service orproduct. There is a clue in the title – you are a manager!


Again, ‘enabling’ suggests apositive approach to helping and assisting management deliver a better serviceor product: empowering them to have an overview of the benefits and challengesof a whole process, not just the part that has their name attached to it.‘Enabling’ too suggests that managers have the willingness to engage inempowerment. The management task needs to be seen as a vocational aspirationrather than an add-on to a technical role.


And on the surface, ‘permit’ maysuggest management have to seek permission to act or that the organisationconcedes that they may have some power (but not too much). Instead, it may alsobe seen as allowing management to manage and to provide them with ‘space’ tosucceed and learn from their mistakes.


The CIPD (‘People Management’magazine, October 2013) offer some clues as to how organisations may empowermanagement. For example, encourage a coaching culture. Throughout the ages, onetheme from the most frequently cited management gurus has been ‘asking thosewho work with you as they’ll have the ideas’, or variations on that. So,coaching styles are ideal for seeking employee input – and enabling employeesto have a voice, another oft quoted solution to improving employee engagement(to use that jargon – basically, helping employees contribute more to work).


But the crux of all this ‘empowerment’ is power and its uses. French and Raven (1958) state that power is a property of a relationship and not of the individual. What matters then is not whether or not (our MD’s secretary) has power, but rather the fact that others perceive (our secretary) to have that ability (paraphrasing Huczynski and Buchanan, 2013, with thanks). Power and politics in organisations too come hand-in-hand. Rather than see politics as a ‘dirty word’, managers should use it – power often derives from been able to use the decision-making process that is ‘company politics’ to the best effect.


So when we talk about ‘empowerment’, organisations need to firstly recognise the benefits of allowing managers to manage and not have the option of hiding behind the ‘expert departments’ such as HR, Marketing and Finance. To use a project management phrase, they are accountable – the buck stops with them. Secondly, the true impact of empowerment should fundamentally change the way that we deliver training and learning in organisations; work-based learning for instance is highly effective for all managers and it is now much wider than perceived ‘NVQ portfolios’ (could not be further from that, actually). And finally, managers themselves need to recognise that they have ‘manager’ in their job title and that they need to remember that when seeking a better result for their team and their organisation, as well as for their own self-development.