Can you fix it?


It sounds good doesn’t it? Like something we would want in our organisations. Something worth striving for. Aiming for.

We need to empower our people, says the books, the articles, the leadership courses.
We say that empowerment is something we want. But whilst it sounds good, some managers, some organisations, some cultures, don’t really want it at all, underneath all of the positive words. They think they do, say that do, maybe then even believe they do. But they can’t live it, support it, make the change.

Because too many of us, deep down, like to make the decisions. Because we think we have all the answers because we’ve been there, done that, own the experience t-shirt. Because we think we know best. And in HR particularly, we are used to being the fixers. And this means that we are part of the problem.

If you really want empowerment, then first there must be trust. There must be a willingness to relinquish control. But most of all, we must get out of the habit of trying to fix everything, for everyone.

We all do it. Someone comes to us with a problem. We go straight into fix mode. Offering solutions, advice, wisdom, experience. As managers and leaders we can sometimes take on roles without even realising it. The parent, the advisor, the agony aunt, the solver of all the problems. In HR, we do everything we can to spot potential problems and fix them before they even arise. We write policies, issue guidance, put procedures in place. We prescribe how situations should be dealt with. Quote the precedent of how we dealt with it last time.

We do it for the best of reasons, but with the worst of outcomes.

Because we take away the responsibility, the ownership, the opportunity to learn and grow. We take away the person’s chance to think for themselves.

So here’s the thing. I’m a fixer. My CV is littered, right to the start of my career in HR, with roles where fixes were needed, challenges abounded. I was required to solve stuff, improve stuff, fix stuff. I did it. And I am still doing it. I have a medical bag in the office in case anyone feels ill. I always have an extra pen in case someone needs one. I’ve always got a tissue. I’ve always got the answer, or so I think. It happens at home and it happens at work. So I’m going to try to be better. To coach more than I tell. To listen more than I talk. To question more than I impart.

If you genuinely want empowered people, a culture in which people will take on the responsibility, make the decision, fix it for themselves, then first, we must put away our toolbox. Even if we think we know best.

Because as leaders, we can’t fix everything, and nor should we even try.

Please Sir, can I be empowered?

I attended a networking event recently, where I found myself talking to a business leader who bemoaned to me that his people didn’t take action. Didn’t take the initiative. ‘They just need to be empowered’, he said to me. I asked him what this would look like, how he would know when he had it, when he had been successful in creating this empowered organisation. He looked at me for a while. ‘They’ll just get on and do stuff, without waiting to be asked’, was the reply.

The problem with the conversation was twofold. Firstly, look at his first statement. There is no recognition, that he, as a senior member of staff, has the responsibility for creating this environment, this belief within his team that they can and they should. That it will be okay, and there won’t be any blame, repercussions, liability.

There are some people that will just make the decision for themselves to take the ownership, make the decision, assume the power. To JFDI, if you will. But they are few are far between. Most people need to be told that it is okay. They need reassurance and guidance, a signal. And this is the responsibility of the leaders of the organisation.

When people ask me for permision to do something simple, everyday, straightforward, I see it as a failure. A failure that I have failed to communicate to them previously that it okay for them to make their own decision, just get on and do what they think is best, weigh up the pros and cons and crack on.

Telling people it is okay is just the start. You need to continually show that you mean it. Recognise people for trying, deciding, getting on with it. Encourage those that step forward first. Inspire the rest to do the same. Even if the whatever it is doesn’t work out quite like it would have done if you had done it, made the call, signed some formal approval document, then embrace it just the same.

If you really want empowerment that is. it’s a nice sounding word. Its sounds collaborative, engaging, like the sort of thing a good leader should want. But not everyone is ready for the reality of handing over their power to others.

Leaders. If you want empowerment then it is your job to create it. Create the culture in which people feel that they can. Power is vested within you by virtue of the role you hold, your job title with the important sounding words. Only you can give it away to others. Let them know the parameters in which they can work, and then get the hell out of their way.

Be brave. And let someone else JFDI.