Empowerment’s Dirty Little Secret

“We need all the details before we can approve this improvement,” the director of the internet marketing team insisted.  “It’s my job to make sure we don’t do anything to make ourselves look bad in front of the VP.”

It could be marketing, sales, HR, or any other functional area of nearly any organization.  This conversation happens everyday in many companies.  The result?  Disempowered, de-motivated, and disgruntled employees nearly every time.  At the same time, a director who misunderstands his role in the organization, further undermining organizational effectiveness.

Let’s look at this a little closer…

In the 1990s, Michael Abrashoff commanded the USS Benfold, a guided missile destroyer in the United States Navy.  His book, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, chronicling his experiences in leadership is well-known for its promotion of an empowering leadership stance.

Commander Abrashoff understood that he did need to know all the details.  In fact, he didn’t have the time or expertise to know all the details.  Instead, the only decisions he needed to make directly were those that might result in injury or death to someone, blatantly waste taxpayer’s money, or risk significant damage to the ship.  All others, he allowed his sailors (often at an individual level) to make, trusting in their abilities to analyze and evaluate situations and viewing as development opportunities those mistakes that were made.

The end result for the Benfold?  A ship rated one of the top in the Navy, with a 100% employee retention rate.

Empower.  Too often, leaders assume they have reached their positions as a result of their own expertise and intellect.  And sometimes that’s true. But most times, no matter what a leader’s own background or innate intelligence, their employees are the true experts, the worker bees wrestling with and understanding the nuances of the real problems on a day in and day out basis.

Instead of insisting on seeing all the details, begin to trust your employees to 1) be bringing forth the best options to begin with, and 2) to make lower level decisions on behalf of the project or department.  You might be surprised with the competence of their decisions.

Motivate.  Particularly in this day and age, the number of individual contributors with significant prior leadership and/or advanced degrees is astounding.  Most companies are rife with incredible layers of talent throughout the organization.  And yet, some leaders insist on sending the message that they are the “smartest ones in the room.”  What a fantastic way to instantly purge all motivation from the best and the brightest in our organization!

A lot of great leadership (and management) lessons can be learned from Abrashoff’s experiences and insight.  The applicability to empowering, motivating, and yes, retaining top talent within any organization is real.  And perhaps it can prevent other leaders from taking the unfortunate tack of the internet marketing director.

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