Empowerment: asking and facing the deeper questions

It occurs to me that empowerment matters. It matters enough for me to think about this deeply and search out those who have thought about this deeply.  If it matters deeply enough to you then continue reading. If it does not really matter to you then I advise you to go and do something that you care deeply about.  With that said, lets start.

What difference does empowerment make?

It really matters if the people in your organisation show up empowered. Empowered to do great work, to create products which show up as ‘magic’, to touch customers in a way that leaves those customers feeling welcomed-understood-validated-helped, to generate an end to end customer experience that simplifies-enriches the lives of your customers.

It really matters, if you, show up as empowered and create a context that allows the people in your business to show up empowered. And allows your customers to show up and experience themselves as empowered.  And creates a space for your suppliers to show up empowered – empowered to share their knowledge and expertise in contributing to the performance of your organisation.

It really matters, if as customers, we show up empowered. Empowered to do business with organisations that stand for purposes-values-behaviours that speak to us. And not do business with organisations that do not stand for and embody that which matters to us. Empowered to get together and apply pressure on regulators and those in government to put in place legislation that protects our interests as customers and to enforce the existing legislation.  We are also empowered to do nothing.  That is our choice; choice is that which comes with empowerment.

In short, empowerment or the lack of it matters.  It occurs to me that empowerment is rather like sunshine in the western world (in the depths of winter) or rain in a region of cursed with drought.  Empowerment creates possibilities which simply are not open-present without the existence-presence of empowerment.

Perhaps because I am so vividly present to the significance and possibility that inheres in empowerment, I chose to put my children in Montessori School.  It occurs to me that it is also the reason that so much of what is written on empowerment (employees, customers) strikes me as shallow and leaves me feeling disappointed-cheated.

Why all the bleating about the lack of empowerment? 

There are two particular aspects of the empowerment conversation that I particularly wish to highlight.  First, there is the assumption that empowerment is a thing to be gifted from the Tops to the Middles and Bottoms.  And from the Middles to the Bottoms. And from the company to customers. Second, is the assumption that empowerment is a blessing and people are yearning to be empowered.

It occurs to me that by virtue of being human you and I are always empowered. You and I are empowered because you and I are free – free to choose. It occurs to me that Sartre spelled this out rather pithily:

Man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

What shows up for me as being a more interested enquiry is this one, given that you and I are empowered why is it that you and I evade this empowerment?  Why all the bleating about empowerment – more precisely the lack of empowerment?  What is it that we are evading through this bleating on the lack of empowerment? Why this supplication at the feet of ‘leaders’?  And why is it that so few ‘leaders’ actually show us as being empowered to chart their own course, and thus lead?

Werner Erhard’s profound insight on empowerment

I share with you the profound insight and wisdom of Werner Erhard. And I encourage you (and I) to listen, really listen to his speaking:

If you are empowered, you suddenly have a lot of work to do because you have the power to do it.

If you are unempowered, you are less dominated by the opportunities in front of you. In other words, you have an excuse to not do the work. You have a way out. You have the security of being able to do what you have always done and get away.

If you are empowered, suddenly you must step out, innovate and create.

The cost, however, of being unempowered is people’s self-expression. They always have the feeling that they have something in them that they never really gave, never really expressed.

By simply revealing the payoffs and costs of being unempowered, people have a choice. They can begin to see that it is possible to make the choice to be empowered rather than to function without awareness.

Empowerment requires a breakthrough and in part that breakthrough is a kind of shift from looking for a leader to a sense of personal responsibility.

The problems we now have in communities and societies are going to be resolved only when we are brought together by a common sense that each of us is visionary. Each of us must come to the realization that we can function and live at the level of vision rather than following some great leader’s vision.

Instead of looking for a great leader, we are in an era where each of us needs to find the great leader in ourselves.”

— Werner Erhard

So what does it take for empowerment to show up?

It occurs to me that it takes the following for empowerment to show up in our way of being-in-the-world:

a) Getting that we are always-already empowered as spelled out by Sartre and so vividly illustrated by Viktor Frankl in his recounting of his concentration camp experiences (Man in Search of Meaning);

b) Caring deeply enough about our being-in-the-world to see-invent possibilities. Possibilities for putting our own ‘dent in the universe’.

c) Courage to put ourselves at risk and act – to live from and into the possibilities that speak to us, to give up comfort and embrace work, to let go of our existing identity and invent-create-embrace the identity that is needed to fulfil on the possibility that we have invented.

What do you say?

What does it take for ’employee engagement’ to show up? (Part VI) v2

This post is an update to the earlier version (released yesterday) which I published before it was ready to be published by pressing the wrong button.  I apologise.

The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear”  Herbert Agar

In this post I continue sharing with you what shows up for me as I grapple with ’employee engagement’.  Given that some of you may have not read the earlier posts, I will first cover some essential ground and the move forward with the ‘new’.

It all comes down to the “concept of persons” and how one should treat one’s fellow man.

I came across this quote which pretty much sums up the humanistic school’s stance on human being and how man should relate to and treat his fellow human beings:

“If you don’t find God in the next person you meet, it is a waste of time looking for him further.”  Gandhi

Wow!  That occurs in my world as a massively powerful assertion and I can only imagine the love that gives rise to this assertion, this stance, uttered and lived by Gandhi.

Whilst the words of humanistic philosophers (e.g. Rousseau) and psychologists (e.g. Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers) are nowhere as poetic, the underlying stance is remarkably similar: a ‘romantic’ notion about the beauty, the goodness, the nobility of the human being – every human being.  Which is why Gandhi and the humanists, as I understand them, are labelled ‘idealists’.

The world that you and I are dwelling in is shaped, ruled and peopled by ‘pragmatists’: philosophers like Hobbes;  and psychologists like Freud and Skinner.    Pragmatists look at the same reality and come up with a radically different “concept of persons”.  They say that the being of human beings is brutish and that left to their themselves people would turn our life into a brutish one.  Recent examples of this brutishness include Rwanda and Yugoslavia.  And who can forget the WWII concentration camps.  And given this dark side lying at the centre of human being, human beings need (and can be) controlled.  Who is to do the controlling?  Those who have always done the controlling:  the elite who hold/exercise power and get to determine what is good and what is bad.

Where do I stand on this matter?

As an “idealist” I can see the beauty/wonder of human beings and as such I say that “pragmatists” have a dim/dark view/unduly negative and possibly self-serving view of human beings.

As a “pragmatist” (I do have a BSc in Applied Physics) I see that human beings are so addicted to and run by the ‘four prime directives’ (you have to read my earlier post to get what these are) that human beings will slaughter life including millions of fellow human beings simply to be right, to dominate, to look good.  And if we those of us who have killed (including those of us who have stood by whilst the slaughter took place) are questioned about what we are doing/have done, we get busy enthusiastically invalidating others and justifying ourselves!

I say, I can see the value and limitations of both of these distinct “concept of persons”.  They both disclose as well as hide stuff about human being.  Taken together they provide a fuller/richer picture of human being.  Now lets move on with the main thrust of this post.

What is the underlying context that fuels our organisations and management practices?

As I have said before, the dominant concept of persons is that of the pragmatists.  Why?  Because  it is the pragmatists that won the fight, who hold positions of power and shape our world including shaping us, human beings.

If you get this then you may be able to hear and be with what I am about to say.  And which I say   gets to the heart of the matter of ’employee engagement’, ’empowerment’, creativity and innovation.  That is to say, it spells out why these phenomena/qualities are not present in almost all organisations and especially not in large/established organisations.

I say that organisations are prisons. Please note, I am not saying that organisations are like prisons.  No. I am saying that organisations are prisons.

When I say that “organisations are prisons” I am pointing out that the people who commission, fund, build and run prisons are primarily concerned with control: controlling the prisoners so that they become docile and do what they are told without asking questions, without questioning the power of those in power – in short without being troublesome.  And this elite use the tried and tested philosophy and practices of command and control that originated in the military which consisted of a small elite officer class and the much larger class of conscripts who were expected to do the fighting, killing and dying upon orders from the officer class.

Crucially, the people who work in organisations (the employees) experience themselves and show up (for themselves and each other) as prisoners.  They speak as if the organisation is a prison and they are imprisoned in it from 9 to 5.  They do not speak even when what is being asked of them shows up as being ‘stupid’.  They do not challenge bosses that show up for them as being incompetent and/or sadists.  In short, they show all the signs of  learned helplessness: people who, no matter what they do or do not do, cannot affect their circumstance and organisational practices.

This helplessness and the docility, compliance and doing the least that is necessary to get through the prison day is understandable – at least I understand it, I have lived it!  Think back to prisons, what shows up in prisons?  One group of people, the prison guards, are relatively small in number and exercise power over a much larger number of people who are deprived of their freedom and are powerless to decide how they live. The fundamental design and operating practice is to get the prisoners to get present to their powerlessness, their helplessness.  Deming totally got this: one of his 14 points is “Drive out fear”.

How much prisoner engagement, creativity and innovation shows up in a prison?  To date, I have never heard of anyone expecting these phenomena to show up in prisons.  Nor have I read or heard about great prisoner engagement, creativity and innovation in prisons.  Which leads me to believe that these phenomena – engagement, creativity, innovation – are not expected and do not show up in prisons.

What does show up in prisons?  The exercise of power and the compliance with power.  And the acceptance/resentment that goes with one set of people exercising power over the lives of another set of people.  I get that from time to time, characters like  Lt. Colonel Nicholson (from the movie Bridge on the River Kwai) show up who get fellow prisoners to be more, to do more for the sake of themselves, their morale, their dignity.  And this engagement, creativity, innovation dies when people like Lt. Colonel Nicholson lose face, lose power, change roles and/or leave the prison.

If you get, can be with, that organisations are prisons then you will stop wondering why there is a lack of employee engagement, why empowerment rarely works out , why there is so little creativity and innovation.  And you will stop listening to and taking seriously those who peddle ’10 steps to employee engagement’!

I ask you, who truly wants the prisoners to be creative/innovative?  Not those who run the prisons!  Creativity and innovation are threats to control in a number of ways including the fact that they embolden the prisoners who may then act beyond their station. Saddam Hussein engendered is downfall by his prison guards (the USA) by becoming creative/innovative and thus beyond the station assigned to him by the USA.

To sum up, creativity, innovation and authentic empowerment are seen as disruptive – threats to the orderly running of the prison and the maintenance of the status quo in power relations.  And thus are not given the space to show up and if they do show up then they are suppressed.  Those that don’t get the rules and play by the rules experience what Saddam experienced.  Yes, he was tyrant and he was not deposed because he was a tyrant.  He was deposed because he acted beyond his assigned station: he got too creative/innovative in deciding to conquer/rule and reattach Kuwait to Iraq.

How do you call forth ’employee engagement’, creativity and innovation?

Werner Erhard coined an insightful stand/possibility: “a world that works, none excluded”.  Notice, that Erhard got that the current design and function of the systems of power is such that the world does not work for all and many are excluded.  I say this is the same for organisations and organisational life as lived.

Stealing from Erhard, I say that the foundation for employee engagement, creativity and innovation is creating/living/operating from the context “an organisation that works, none excluded”. That means that the organisational play is designed so that it works for everyone in the organisation: shareholder, management, employees, customers, suppliers and regulators.  And that there is an wholehearted authentic commitment to this context by all especially those who wield power and thus see only threat/risk (to themselves) from putting in place and operating from such a context.

What goes with such a context?  What is necessary to enable such a context to take hold and operate?  I say authentic communication.  Jurgen Habermas calls this “undistorted communication” and he spells out four conditions for communication to be undistorted:

1. Symmetry condition – every single person has an equal opportunity to talk and duty to listen;

2. Sincerity condition – every single person means what s/he says;

3. Truth condition – every single person discloses what s/he believes to be true; and

4. Normative condition – every single person says what is right morally.

If you are going to create this context “organisations that work, none excluded” and a context where “undistorted communication” is called forth and is kept in existence then you need to get present to conflict.  And you have to be a stand for peaceful conflict resolution.

Before I share these guidelines I have a question for you.  How many “leaders” do you know that are authentically up for creating/embodying the kind of context and practices that I have spelled out here?  Put differently, how many want to see/be with this truth?

Now you know why I opened this post with that quote by Agar.  Pretty much everyone who writes, and is listened to, by the business world, about these topics ignores this elephant in the room: the fundamental imbalance in power relations and organisation as prison.   Hence, the profusion of banal recipes/checklists for employee engagement, empowerment, creativity and innovation.  Which also explains (at least to me) why  these banal, even idiotic, 10 step checklists fail to deliver on the promises they make.  And some 80% of the people who work in organisations are alienated/disengaged from their work and the organisations they work for/within.

An even bigger idiocy is to put your faith in technology to bring about employee engagement, empowerment, collaboration, creativity and innovation.   Why?  Because prison guards always use technology to further their needs to control/enslave/restrict the little freedom that the prisoners experience themselves as having in organisational life. I was there when sales force automation hit the corporate scene.  I saw and experienced how those of us involved in actually doing the selling saw the technology for what it was and is.   And we used ‘guerilla tactics’ to ‘fight it’.  The fight continues and which is why social technologies have failed to deliver ‘social behaviour’ that the software vendors peddle and managers want.

I have another question for you: how likely is it, really, to get any significant and enduring employee engagement without moving from the existing context (organisations as prison) to the context that I am proposing (“organisation that works, none excluded”) in this post?  

If you think I push this too far then I ask you ask yourself this: why did so many people live normal jobs in large/established companies to start their own companies or join dot.coms when the internet hit the business world in a big way!

Guidelines for peaceful conflict resolution

I came across these guidelines at the Montessori School that my children attended.  When I saw these guidelines it struck me that every family, every team, every organisation can dramatically enhance ‘workability’ and ‘performance’ by embodying the following maxims:

Respect the right to disagree

Express your real concerns

Share common goals and interests

Open yourself to different points of views

Listen carefully to all points of view, all proposals

Understand the major issues that are involved

Think about probable consequences

Imagine many possible alternative solutions, at least several

Offer reasonable compromises

Negotiate mutually fair cooperative agreements

And finally

Montessori School stops here in the UK at age 11.  Which means that I saw no option but to put my children into the normal/traditional schools.  For my children traditional schools (they went to two of them, first was so bad I took them out after a year) showed up as prisons.  Prisons where the students have no voice, no say on the clothes they wear, nor the behaviour of the teachers or the quality of their teaching.  Prisons where the teachers are prison guards intent on dominating/controlling the pupils so that they became docile and do what teachers want them to do.  My children hated these schools and did not want to go to school.  So I made frequent trips to these schools and was seen as a troublesome/difficult parent.

I went to see the head teachers.  At each school, the headteacher  listened politely to my exposition of the Montessori philosophy and how it could be practiced in their school and the benefits for all.    Each headteacher told me that his/her school was not designed for such a philosophy, that the Montessori philosophy is disruptive, and it would not work in their school.

Each told me that their mandate is “to run an orderly institution, in a standard manner, treating all children the same’.  And this meant ensuring that they teachers had the power to control 600 unruly students.  Which meant ensuring that the student knew the rules and stuck to the rules.  And any students who created trouble were acted upon quickly.   When I pressed for the need to respond intelligently, taking into account the needs of the child/the circumstance, I was told categorically that exceptions to operating rule risked the orderly running of the school and the loss of their jobs.

School is the first organisational prison (in our society) that acts on the creative, innovative, empowered, energetic, enthusiastic, alive human beings amongst us: the children.  And it’s hidden design function/purpose is to turn these children into docile creatures who take orders from those in power and carry them out in the prescribed manner and timetable set by the powerful.  In short, to prepare them for organisational life.  And life in society.  

What do you say?