Myth 34: You’re Empowered Because I Say You Are


Do your managers truly own their decision making or are they only "empowered" to come to you for approval of every idea and dollar spent? If you don't trust your team leaders to make decisions, how can you expect stakeholders to? Setting boundaries and defining expectations are two ways to empower managers and encourage initiative, giving them the opportunity to gain your trust.

“Larry, I need VP approval for this,” said Josh, the director of engineering.

Larry looked annoyed. “This is only $30. Why am I signing off on $30?”

“Because I have no signature authority on anything. Even though I’m a director, I can’t sign off on any discretionary purchases. I have no capital equipment authorization. I have a company credit card for when I travel and interview, which is good, because I do take people out for lunches and dinners. But, I have to say, I don’t feel much like a director here. I’m not empowered the way I thought I would be when you offered me this job.”

Larry stiffened and sat back in his chair. “Is it about the money? I might be able to do something about purchasing power.”

“No, the discretionary purchases are just one indication that the company doesn’t trust me. Look, empowerment is based on trust. You might trust me, but the company doesn’t trust anyone in engineering to do our jobs right.

Josh thought he would try to explain the situation. “We are supposedly agile, right?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“We can’t get our supposed product owners to work with us in our iterations. And the acceptance test people are just as bad. Our iterations aren’t even two weeks; they are really eight weeks. That’s four weeks for the product owners to hem and haw about what they think they want in a two-week iteration, two weeks for the developer and QA team to work on it, and another two weeks for the acceptance test people to accept it. That’s just nuts.

“When I talked to the product owners and mapped the flow for them, they told me they were too busy to talk to me, that they would only talk to a VP.

“Likewise when I talked to the acceptance test people. We can’t solve problems at our level.

“I’m not empowered to do anything. I can try, but we are so hierarchical, it’s not worth it.”

“Wow,” said Larry. “I had no idea.”

“I didn’t think so.”

“What can I do?”

“Larry, this is a culture problem. You can tell me I’m empowered, but that doesn’t mean anything. I can’t solve cross-functional problems; I can only solve problems inside engineering. But our problems span the organization.
“You keep canceling our one-on-ones. Have you talked to any of your directors in the past month?”

“Uh, no. I’ve been really busy.”

“I’m sure you have been. But if you talk to each of your directors, I bet each of us have the same story.

“You can’t just tell us we’re ‘empowered.’ Empowerment is a cultural thing, and we don’t have it here. If you are too busy to talk to us, you can’t help us solve problems at our level. Empowerment is just a word. You want it? You have to walk the talk. You have to trust me to solve problems at my level. You have to trust all of us.”

“Josh, are you looking for a job elsewhere?”

“What do you think?”

What Does Empowerment Mean?
When management tells a group of people they are empowered, it means those people have the power to make a set of decisions without their managers second-guessing them. The employees are supposed to take initiative, but in many organizations, it’s not clear who is supposed to make decisions about what.

Clarify Boundaries
There may be good reasons for boundaries around spending in an organization. But if there are, the accounting or finance departments would gain goodwill and empathy by sharing those reasons with everyone.

Everyone in the organization makes decisions about projects and problems. It doesn’t matter if you are in facilities, IT, or engineering, you make decisions that affect the health of the organization Every. Single. Day.

Empowerment is not just an agile thing. So, it makes sense to understand the boundaries of your decision-making whether you are agile or not. However, the more agile you want to be, the more you want to push decision-making down to the people with the problems. Otherwise, the cost of delay rises as you wait and wait and wait for a decision by the people in charge.

When the decision-making boundaries are not clear to everyone collaboration across the organization suffers. Some people retreat to safer boundaries, even if that makes the work more difficult for others. They cover their tushes (also known as CYA). These people are afraid to make a mistake.

Telling Isn’t the Same as Being
You can tell people they are empowered until you are blue in the face, but that doesn’t change anyone’s mind. It’s your actions that will change their minds.

Here is one way to demonstrate empowerment:

You can say, “Here are the results we want for the product.” (You might ask the team to please provide you with their release criteria.) “However you get there is fine with management. Please provide us demos and status every couple of weeks so we can see your progress along the way. If you need help, please ask us. We want to be involved in that way. However, you have control over how you develop the product.”

Notice that you didn’t have to say the “E” word. You explained the results you wanted. You explained how you would check in with the team. You said you would be available for help. You also said team members had control over how they developed the product. You set the boundaries and provided the team with enough room to move.

You don’t want teams or people to run open loop; you want them to act responsibly. In my experience, people do act with the best interests of the organization, as long as you tell them the results you want.

It’s up to you as a manager to be specific about the results you want, not the process of how to achieve the results. Do that, and you will have empowered people.

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