The Dark Side of Empowering Your Employees

Eklund Consulting founder Nathan Eklund discusses how the most well-intended leadership strategies must be used correctly by an effective leader to send the desired message to employees.

There are two sides to every coin. Knives cut in both directions. Either glass has the same amount of water in the end.

Trusting and empowering people and letting them be in charge of their own work is really laudable and great. Until it isn’t anymore.

I typically take it as a positive when I hear leaders say something along the lines of, “I don’t stick my nose in everyone’s work. I trust them and think they know best. I want to empower people to really own their work.”

Hey! That’s awesome! I want to work for YOU!  You’re a Kick Ass Boss (KAB)!

From the boss’s perspective, everything about that is right in the wheelhouse of most leadership books or seminars. And at face value, it certainly adheres to the right sort of approach towards trusting people.

But seen from the employees’ perspectives? It’s not always the same message they’re experiencing. I often find that in work environments where the mantra of “empowering people” rules the day, there can be some undercurrents within the workplace that show this mantra can come at a cost.

Observe below:

Boss Says:  I don't want to tell you how to do your job.

Employee Hears:  I can't tell you exactly what I expect of you or specifically want you to accomplish.

Boss Says:  You’re closest to the problem. You know best.

Employee Hears:  This is on you. Solve it.

Boss Says:  I trust you to do the right thing. You got this!

Employee Hears:  I trust you to do the right thing, but you maybe won’t.  And if you don’t, I suppose I could fire or reprimand you.

The Boss's statements, in a vacuum, sound like the language of a quintessential KAB. But the Employee's perceptions show that there is a balance point between entrusting people and leaving people feeling unsure about their work, employment status, or overall direction of the organization.

There’s a big difference between “I trust you to do the right thing” and “You’re a smart and good person and I’m glad you work for me. Tell me what you’re thinking and let me know how I can help.” THAT! That’s what people want. They want to be trusted and valued but within some sense of parameters and direction.

So to you, KAB, I encourage you to gauge your balance point. Have you empowered people so much you’ve abdicated legitimate leadership? Or are you in that sweet spot in between? If you don’t know the answer, a KAB would go ask and find out.

I trust you to do the right thing. You got this!