Recently we sat with the new core team of a very large non-profit. They want to change their organizational structure to a flexible, nimble environment that is innovative and open, so they flattened the organization, took away restrictions and told staff "be creative, be innovative" The result? Panic and paralysis for most of the staff except for a rare few. Why? The core team thought they were empowering the staff to be creative. Essentially they were abandoning the staff to uncertainty. The difference between empowerment and abandonment is important for anyone who is mentoring, leading, parenting or coaching someone else.
We see it all the time. Leaders, coaches, even parents want to help someone learn something new. So they gently nudge them to attempt the new skill, embrace the new behavior, or accept the "stretch" assignment. Then they sit back and watch. Usually the outcome is not what they expect. The person either freezes, turns in something they've done before, or botches it badly. The leader then reflects "well, I empowered them to get this done." Yet in reality they did not empower the other person as much as abandon them.
Abandonment is when we suggest that someone learn a new skill, or take on a new job and we don't provide the support they need. Working at Merrill Lynch in the 90's I was tasked with creating on-line training for our managers. With no training, poor materials, tight deadlines, and no support, I failed. And my boss said to me she was disappointed I wasn't able to achieve my "stretch" assignment. She thought she had empowered me when in fact she had abandoned me. So what are the necessary components for real empowerment?
Direction. There are some people who, with no direction, can decide what they want to achieve and move toward it. Most of us however need to have some idea of what we are trying to accomplish. It might be mastering a new skill, or attempting new work, but we need to have an idea of the end goal.
Training. Asking someone to try something new without providing some training is almost bound to fail. Anything that involves doing something you've never done before requires some education. It avoids the stumbling over simple mistakes and allows the person to have some security as they try something new.
Materials. Providing the proper equipment to help the person succeed is also essential. Tasked with creating online training, I was using an old computer that couldn't keep up with new software. It was laughable (well, I can look back now and laugh).
A Sounding Board. When people are attempting new work or risking themselves in a new venture, they need someone to talk to. Too often those who "abandon" them say "I don't need to hear from you until it's done." They don't realize that they are not setting the person free, they are inhibiting them because they can't dialogue about the challenges or successes.
Support. This is the most important difference between empowerment and abandonment. The fear of failure is a major factor that inhibits success. In order for someone to focus on something new and accept the risks, they need to know that they will be supported if it fails. Otherwise they will only hesitantly try new things while they protect themselves from the potential fall out. The sweetest words I heard from a manager giving me a stretch assignment was "Don't worry. I've got you covered." That's when I was set free.