In this series, I have discussed several aspects of empowered relationships—what they are and what they are not—so that you can use this concept/perspective to help your sponsor achieve success. In this last post, I’ll cover three basic yet powerful elements that combine to form empowerment-based relationships—beliefs, motivations, and actions.
Beliefs (The Foundation)
What the Sponsor Believes
What Empowered People Believe
Motivations (The Driving Force)
What Motivates the Sponsor
What Motivates Empowered People
Actions (Behavioral Evidence)
How the Sponsor Acts
How Empowered People Act
Empowerment is a corporate term that is often misunderstood or misused. It is not synonymous with delegation. Instead, empowerment should be reserved to describe those situations where people are not granted authority to make decisions themselves, but are in a position to provide influential input to sponsors as they make change-related decisions. Although they are not easy to develop, empowered relationships are one of the most important aspects of orchestrating organizational change. As such, it is vital that we as change professionals help clarify what the term means and how it can be fostered with the people surrounding sponsors. Also, it is essential that we secure and maintain an empowered relationship with the sponsors we support.
I’ve been talking in this series about building empowered relationships with your clients and between you and sponsors. It is accomplished when you and your clients follow specific actions and meet multiple criteria. Here is a graphic that illustrates the usual order of the process:
You can gain many benefits when empowered relationships exist between you and your clients, and among key people within your clients. Yet, given how few empowered relationships exist during the execution of critical change, it is clear they’re not easy to develop. Here are some of the obstacles that can get in the way of empowerment:
How do you know empowerment-related problems may be brewing? Stay alert for symptoms like the following:
This last symptom of potential empowerment-related problems is worth a bit more exploration because victimization significantly inhibits establishing the kind of working environment where influence can thrive.
Empowered or Victimized—You Choose
Victimization is the antithesis of empowerment and people with this mindset don’t make good partners for sponsors. They tend to go underground with their concerns rather than discuss them openly and they withhold honest, explicit, or insightful feedback and suggestions. Even when the sponsor reaches out to them and asks for their ideas, they usually offer safe recommendations that are sure not to run against the sponsor’s predispositions.
It has become an art form to be a card-carrying victim while flying undetected under the radar. Here are some characteristics of a victim mentality:
- A reason is the root cause or contributing factor behind a problem, but the person is still responsible for the outcome.
- An excuse is a root cause or contributing factor behind a problem that releases the person from responsibility.
Victims tend to provide reasons when they don’t deliver on a promise, and then expect a “hall pass.” (“I couldn’t get it done because I overslept.”) People in empowered relationships may tell you the reason behind missing a deadline but they don’t assume it releases them from their responsibilities. (“I wasn’t paying attention and ran out of gas on the way to the airport. My apology for disrupting everyone’s schedule by missing the meeting. It won’t happen again.”)
As change practitioners, the challenge here is to face the victim that lurks beneath our own surface as well as be prepared to help those clients who are ready to move beyond the limitations imposed by their own victim mindsets. My experience is that only through true empathy can change practitioners connect to the fears and anxieties people experience as they move from being dominated by victim mentality to being liberated through empowered relationships.
Victims tend to deny/avoid what they don’t like, reject/attack what they can’t influence, protect/ fortify their existing positions, and retreat into covert action or withdraw altogether. Empowered people tend to acknowledge/surface what they don’t like, embrace/accommodate what they need to succeed in the new circumstances, open/expand their boundaries, and act in ways that move things forward.
Victims don’t make good partners for sponsors. They can even keep change projects from succeeding if sponsors don’t have enough empowered relationships around them to help navigate the ship. In our role as change professionals, it is crucial that we help our clients create and maintain empowered-centric lines of influence so the sponsors can make the best decisions possible during the implementation process.
As practitioners, it’s vital for us to be empowered because, during major change, successful sponsors depend on people they trust to help influence their thinking. Sponsors rely on these individuals because their observations and opinions can result in rethinking—and possibly changing—the sponsors’ previous, current, or impending decisions for the better.
In my last post, I described how empowerment must be earned with the sponsor, and described four actions that help a person earn the sought-after status. In addition, there are specific characteristics displayed by people who have empowered relationships with sponsors:
These characteristics apply whether the empowered person influencing a sponsor is one of his or her direct reports or an internal or external change practitioner.
Next: Road blocks to empowerment
Empowered people don’t get that way through a corporate edict or by attending a training class. A person builds empowerment through establishing a record of providing useful perspectives and successful recommendations to a sponsor. When the decision maker realizes he or she will make better decisions by listening to and valuing the input offered by a particular person (or group), that person becomes empowered. Work environments can be established that attract people who are predisposed toward developing empowered relationships, and empowerment can be fostered and flourish, but it is not a quality that can be given to people simply because HR, OD, or anyone else determines that it is a good idea.
Whether internal personnel or external consultant, empowerment is earned through four actions:
Meet the criteria for being influential.
We all have a secret list of things people must do to be influential with us. If someone meets all the stipulations, we stop and listen when he or she offers an opinion or a recommendation. I don’t mean we politely take their council to appease them. We truly try to absorb what they say because we’ve learned we’ll make better decisions if we do. Even when we’ve made up our minds, an empowered person’s view can make us reconsider our position. We don’t relinquish control over our decisions, but we believe it is in our best interest to include this person’s perspective as we consider our options.
Here’s the interesting part: This checklist is so secret, most of us don’t even know what it includes. We bury the content in our subconscious so deeply that, although it has a major bearing on who we pay attention to, most of us are unaware of its existence. All we consciously register is that one person’s suggestions bring us little benefit while another’s are highly valued.
These criteria are both undeclared and unexamined, so they are rarely given any scrutiny. Typically, the list causes us to gravitate toward people we like and/or who make suggestions/recommendations consistent with our biases and preferences. Of course, this creates an insulated environment that severely limits our options.
Most people who gain empowerment with a sponsor either naturally display the very characteristics on the secret list or, through observation, have determined what the items are and exhibit them when interacting with the sponsor. Either way, the sponsor begins to realize that input from this person is well worth the price of slowing down and deeply listening.
To accelerate the empowerment process, sponsors should determine what their influence criteria are and openly share it with those working to become empowered. I often ask sponsors to consider several questions to help them uncover their “secret list”:
Apply unflinching candor.
The empowered person communicates with impeccable honesty, explicitness, and directness when interacting with the sponsor. The sponsor learns that he or she will pull no punches when it comes to expressing opinions, making recommendations, or responding to requests for feedback. The empowered person is courageous and comprehensive when articulating a view so the sponsor can rest assured that nothing of substance is withheld.
Candid exchanges with the sponsor are a responsibility, not a privilege, and the empowered person feels duty-bound to fulfill that obligation. Being brutally frank is seen by both as an act of service to the sponsor, not a form of disrespect.
Provide insightful input.
Empowered people provide the sponsor with approaches, suggestions, and perspectives that help him or her make sound change-related decisions. To build and maintain an empowered status, recommendations need to result in progress toward change realization. For those who might be put off by the utilitarian nature of such a view, remember, this is not a relationship based on friendship or mutual likes or dislikes. Although a personal affinity might exist between an empowered person and a sponsor, when it comes to influencing key decisions, the sponsor calls on the empowered person for a valued opinion, not a friendly chat.
Consistently support the sponsor’s decisions.
Once the sponsor considers the empowered input and makes a decision, the person offering it must be unwavering in his or her support of the sponsor’s conclusion…regardless of whether the advice he or she offered is reflected in the final determination. In fact, if the empowered status is to be maintained, it is particularly important that the sponsor see full, unequivocal support for even the most unpopular decisions.
Opting out, in any manner, is patently unacceptable in an empowered relationship. The empowered person shouldn’t do anything (from overt rebellion to subtle innuendo) to indicate he or she is not dedicated to helping carry out the sponsor’s final decision.
How does this work if the person genuinely doesn’t agree with the decision? He or she either 1) accepts that the sponsor has access to information others don’t and trusts that the decision is in everyone’s best interest, or 2) tells the sponsor he or she can’t support the outcome and withdraws from the endeavor. This may or may not result in a permanent reduction of empowered access. However, the advisor will have at least honored the sponsor by admitting he or she was unable to support the decision. What is absolutely unacceptable is to in any way undermine a sponsor’s decision after he or she listened to and valued empowered advice but then followed a different path.
A Treasured Resource
Empowerment is earned, not given away or secured through a training program. It is the result of someone meeting the sponsor’s often undeclared criteria for gaining influence, being completely honest in all communications, providing valuable and useful input, and supporting the final decision regardless of whether he or she agrees with it. If this sounds like it is hard to accomplish, it’s because it is. An empowered relationship is a precious resource sponsors desperately need, but can’t always find. That’s why sponsors treasure them when they do exist and typically reward the person for being such a valued asset to the organization.
Next: Seven characteristics of an empowered person