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3 building blocks to facilitate empowerment in the digital age

Many thanks to our special contributor, Sergey Afanasyev, for sharing his thoughts on Leadership and Empowerment in the digital age. 


In March 2011 I came across the word "empowerment" for the first time. As a newly introduced lean manager to a manufacturing site, I carefully reviewed an assessment questionnaire for an operational excellence program. "Empowerment" has been a very specific element of the program, because it had neither training materials nor checklists, but four questions to help managers evaluate to which extent frontlines are empowered. For instance, at one site people would openly share problems and ways to resolve them, while at another location they would look down to the floor, letting you to pass by.


"Command and control as a management philosophy is all but dead, and "empowerment" is the word of the day in most organisations trying to thrive in global, intensely competing markets.” [1]


In the VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), companies aim to speed up decision making while striving to grow. Thus, strategic focus of many global corporates today is agility and talent development.


Empowering people is hard work because of two reasons. The first, is that it requires capabilities for managers to delegate, and associates to resolve problems. The second is that all of them have the desire to do so, but that isn't always the case. There are three building blocks to address these challenges and facilitate empowerment on organisational level: Change vision, Leadership, and Incentives.


Change Vision

“Clarifying the direction of change is important because, more often than not, people disagree on direction, or are confused, or wonder whether significant change is really necessary” [2].


Two years ago I and a co-founder of a young tech company had a conversation about people development. The basic idea was to encourage employees to act as entrepreneurs and be more creative. We started our debate with the trends in the tech industry such as agility, out-of-the-box thinking, scrum, etc. Our goal was to get a clear picture of concrete behaviours that on the one hand would give the company an advantage over competitors, on the other hand secure its DNA. In other words we needed to set an effective change vision, that is focused, bold, aspirational, and easy to communicate. The company's financial and population growth required a systemic approach to shaping new behaviours.


An effective change vision aims to empower your people to act autonomously in a certain direction for change. Set a change vision, remember that its communication is never enough, deploy digital technologies to spread the word.



“As humans we are influenced by those whom we permit to change our thinking” [3].


As a rule of thumb, at the beginning only 10% of people would support a change vision and follow it. I often hear managers saying "They [people] don't want to change". I shared this observation with one of the IESE professors and he replied to me profoundly "The only person you can change is yourself.” The underlying principle of his reply is grounded in cognition and its impact on overall performance.


Whether we want it or not, our minds constantly run inner dialogues that form the way we feel and naturally behave. For instance, our primitive instinct if we run into a bear in the woods is to run away. We know this is dangerous (inner dialogues), body starts experiencing sensations (feelings), and then there comes an urge to run away, which we choose to follow (behavior). Now imagine, you are forced to stay.


“Forced behaviour change is contrary to what our thinking dictates”. Thus it leads to feeling stress “…as a product of suppression.”[4]


Such an approach would not result in lasting change, because the new behaviour contradicts the thoughts we have in our heads. Therefore, to empower people, address the way they see and think about processes.


The magnitude of change therefore depends on the ‘size’ of a leader and how she makes an impact. Albert Mehrabian (1971) found that 55% of the impact comes from non-verbal communication.  Change your behaviour first: how you build rapport, delegate, observe, allow reasonable mistakes, feedback and coach.



Imagine a supervisor who delivers top business results but instills strong command and control culture, instead of empowerment. What is a chance of getting direct and swift penalty for her? It very much depends on formal evaluation systems in a company she works for. When certain behaviours get promoted or on the contrary ignored, it gives a broad based impact on a company’s culture.


Corporate formal structures and informal culture can make it truly difficult to empower associates to head towards a change vision, especially across structural silos.


“Just as important, empowerment can only thrive when the whole organisation buys into it” [1]


This covers at minimum such systems as communication, incentive, legacy and goes broader to organisational design, promotions and lay offs. It may take years to sustainably change the structures and incentives to support new agile culture.


"Incentives are cornerstones of modern life. And understanding them—or, often, ferreting them out—is the key to solving about any riddle…”[5]



In a nutshell, empowering people is hard. Nevertheless today corporate redesign incentives, communicate change visions and develop leaders to foster agile working cultures. Why do we still observe that command and control remains a common practice?


During my leadership training in Austria I got a chance to participate in one activity. The goal of an exercise was to take a path on a playground without hitting an obstacle. We split in pairs, and each of us chose a role between a leader and a follower. Those who decided to be led, had to take a path on the playground, but blindfolded. A leader helped to dodge an obstacle only communicating; touching was not allowed. As you can imagine the closer a blindfolded one was to a swing on a playground, the more frequent instructions came from her leader. On the contrary, when there was no obstacle, leaders were saying easily ‘you are safe to go’, and randomly checked if things were fine.


My takeaway is that leaders balance between command and control management and empowerment very much depending on how they perceive the situation.

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