You're All Empowered. Now Go Do What I Told You To Do

Goes around; comes around. Yesterday’s news; tomorrow’s headline. What’s old is new again. Good ideas keep coming back to haunt us. Those who do not learn from history have to repeat the class, enroll in the three-hour lab held every Tuesday, and complete all compulsory homework which will make up 10% of the grade. All of this an introduction to lessons I learned/was reminded of when I recently stumbled across an old book from 1987. (Gad, 1987 is old?  What does that make me?) (Don’t answer that.) The book is The Empowered Manager by Peter Block. 

I don’t know about you, but it seems I am hearing a familiar lament from many managers/leaders (audit managers/audit leaders) – an echo of times long ago when everyone wanted their employees (auditors) to feel/act/be more empowered. And the lamentations follow the same verse and chorus that was sung a long time ago. The managers are sure their people have the skills, the opportunities, the wherewithal, and the gumption. But, for some reason, their people – the emerging leaders who are the “future” of the company - will not take the reins; they will not step forward and help drive the company/department to heights of new gloriousness.
While I applaud the fine intentions of those who, with great sincerity, plead for their employees to achieve greatness, I cannot help but believe that, in spite of how heartfelt the message, leaders are blind to what they are asking, what they want, and what it really takes to get there. These leaders are all well-intentioned. And, almost every single one of them, in spite of those intentions, is the cause of the problem. 
And so we return to 1987 to solve a problem that exists in 2012. In Peter Block’s book there are many good concepts building on each other with the intent of leading the reader to a promised land of employees who act empowered and are, indeed, actually empowered. I share with you the beginning of that voyage.
Block puts forward the idea that employees act with such cautiousness and dependency on authority because of the “Bureaucratic Cycle” that destroys empowerment/entrepreneurial spirit/creativity. This cycle starts with “The Patriarchal Contract”. This is the traditional “contract” between employer and organization that places a premium on top-down orientation with its focus on highly controlled activities.
Is there any description that more accurately defines the structure of most internal audit departments? Internal audit departments pride themselves on being comprised of high-quality professionals. And the first thing that is done to those professionals is have them report to an auditor-in-charge who reports to a supervisor who reports to a manager who reports to a director who reports to an AVP who reports to the CAE. And everything is handed down from on high. For the lowly auditor (the person that was hired to be a “professional”), he or she is not sure where the audit came from, what the originally perceived risks were, and, in some cases, why the heck a test is being conducted in the first place.
And the leaders rend their garments and cry to the ivory towers that the people refuse to feel empowered.
Yes, this is an exaggeration (although I’ll bet it is not far from the truth for larger organizations). But I have heard stories of such elements existing in even the smallest audit shops. (Well, maybe not the smallest – hard not to feel empowered in a one-person shop – but the next-to-smallest at least.)
Feelings of empowerment die in direct proportion to the amount of control exercised. And we exercise a whole lot of control. Empowerment requires two important aspects – knowledge and freedom. Neither of these is fostered in the internal audit environment described above.
Here’s my suggestion. Give someone a project/task/audit and tell them not to come back until they are done or they have a question, whichever comes first. And then fight every impulse you have to check in with them. Trust (did I mention the third thing you need for empowerment is trust?) them to be professional enough to complete the task without your interference, and trust them enough to come to you when they really need help.
Of course, there is a whole lot more to all of this (just as there is a whole lot more to Block’s book), but it is a start. Do a gut check. If you are crying for others to act as if they are empowered, do you really mean it (because it means giving up a lot of your control) and are you really ready to let the inmates run the internal audit asylum? (Odds are they can run it better.)

Posted on Feb 10, 2012 by Mike Jacka

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  1. I was, they could, you, Dave and Tami proved it!
  1. Dear Mike,

    I love your articles a lot and most of the time I couldn't agree with you more, and again same here, but the power should come with responsibility. I believe for really empowerment to work, it has to come from top down, all the way up, and those at the tip of the chain have to allow mistakes and lessons, and it has to be a prevailing company culture. Otherwise, the person who truly allowed those below him or her real power would be stuck. So I feel like the article is preaching to the choir, can you please make all the chairmen and CEOs understand that?  :-)
  1. Sharon, you are correct that much of this comes from above.  However, I am hoping that some of those "powers that be" are reading, also.  (And there is nothing to stop a copy from surreptitiously appearing on the appropriate desk/e-mail inbox/etc.)

    But, I want to add that there is a role for the employee also.  First is to jump in and grab that power when offered.  Second is to take the power whether offered or not.  I have worked in situations where there was no intent to provide empowerment.  That didn't stop me from acting as if I had it.  Sometimes it worked; sometimes it got me in trouble.  But I'd rather be in trouble than in the box.

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