The essence of power is not the power itself, but in the license it grants the holder of power to make a difference and influence the outcome of any situation.
Many in business seem to believe that the accumulation and retention of power is the objective of the game, but that misses the point. Power should not be seen as the goal, but as a tool that can be used to achieve goals. The most effective leaders do not seek to accumulate power so they can do great things; instead they share the power they have among their followers, so they can do great things. They know that when power is constricted or consolidated in the hands of the few, it excludes the many from feeling empowered to make a difference, destroying their incentive to participate and work toward the objective.
A good example of how people act when they feel empowered or conversely, powerless, can be gleaned from voter turnout in national and local elections. The New York Times reported that the national voter turnout of 36.3 percent for the 2014 federal election was the lowest in 72 years. In the three largest states – California, Texas and New York – less than a third of those eligible to vote did so.
Voter participation in state and local elections is even more abysmal; often less than 20 percent of those eligible exercise their franchise to vote. When slackers were asked why they didn’t vote, the vast majority reported they sat out the election because, “They didn’t believe their vote would make a difference.”
Compare that result with this one: it has been estimated that 71.3 percent of active members of organized special interest groups turn out to vote in support of their cause. In the 2012 recall election of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker (he won), 57.8 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. This was the highest participation rate for a gubernatorial election not on a presidential ballot in Wisconsin history.
The point here is that when people feel important and that they have the power to make a difference, they will become involved and make the effort to make a difference. But when people feel no sense of power to make a difference or influence the outcome of a decision, they lose interest. They lack incentive to contribute and basically sit on their hands. When this happens, the leader – no matter how much power he or she may have in theory – is, in reality, powerless to achieve the sought-after objective.
Many in the business world long for power—so they can keep it for themselves.
More often than not, the politics of the typical business organization is driven by an addiction to power and the personal success it is perceived to bestow. This is not bad in and of itself, but a problem emerges when those who do acquire power exhibit little understanding for the real power of power and fail to use it effectively. It is as if power for power’s sake is the only goal.
This tunnel vision thinking is clearly evident when looking at the traditional “organizational chart.” These charts are structured in the form of a pyramid, with the CEO and senior officers at the pinnacle, unmistakably sending the signal where the power resides. The message is that the lower one is on the pile, the less power they possess. The problem with most companies is not that power – or the lack of it – is expressed this way, but that the leaders of the organization believe that when it comes to power, this is the way it should be.
When the culture of the organization revolves around the concentric acquisition and accumulation of power, those down the line begin to feel powerless to make a difference or influence the success of the organization. As this happens they withdraw, lose interest and lack the incentive to make the extra effort for the benefit of the organization.
Power Hoarders Should Know Better
What makes this cycle of power so incongruous is that most of those who have power in the business world know that the constriction and husbanding of power among the few is counterproductive to the overall success of the organization. One of the most discussed and praised techniques of successful management is “employee empowerment.” While virtually everyone in a business leadership role professes to recognize the value of employee empowerment, it is almost always more talk than action.
In survey after survey a large majority of employees who express dissatisfaction with their job cite lack of respect for their effort and the absence of an opportunity to offer input that could make a difference. In short, they feel powerless and that’s a bad feeling to have in an organization that puts a premium on power.
Why Not Empower Others to Make a Difference?
If empowering employees is recognized as the right thing to do, why don’t more managers do it? The chief reason managers fail to empower others is the mistaken belief that giving up their hard-earned power to others will, in some way, make them less powerful. They don’t understand the difference between sharing power and relinquishing it. When employees are empowered by the leader, what is transferred is not the authority of the leader, but the real essence of the feeling of power: that magical recognition that one is respected for their talent and that they can make a difference.
The leader always retains the power of their position, but when the leader is willing to share the benefits of that power with their followers it creates a feeling of empowerment. It is the feeling of empowerment that builds loyalty to the leader, encourages participation and incents the follower to do the best they can—not only for themselves, but also for the leader and the company. It’s not that everyone wants the power and responsibility to make the decisions – most don’t – but what they do want is the feeling that they are important to the leader and the company. And they have that feeling when they feel empowered to make a difference.
It Costs Little and Gains so Much to Empower Others
All it takes is the right attitude and a few simple steps for a leader to empower their followers.
- It starts with respect. When the manager exhibits the same level of respect for the powerless as they do for the powerful, the powerless become empowered. Respect is empowering and it comes down to simply acknowledging and recognizing the value and contribution of the employee. How hard is that?
- Participation is a key element of empowerment. How can one feel empowered if they are excluded from the process? When a person’s opinion, thoughts and ideas are sought out it signals they are valued and this is highly empowering. It does not mean the employee makes the decision, but when the leader shares power by including them in the process of making the decision, they are empowered.
- The ultimate feeling of empowerment for an employee is when they are recognized for their contribution and allowed to share in the value they helped to create. Conversely, it is a sure sign of powerlessness when an individual works hard and contributes to the success of an organization, only to have others take the credit and accept the rewards. When a corporate culture is based on shared effort, recognition and rewards, the more those involved will feel empowered. And when empowered they will be incented to participate.
It all comes down to this simple maxim: Power is a powerful tool when a leader uses it to empower others.