A Higher Standard

As a consultant, I pushed empowerment. I believe that those closest to the work know the work the best and are the right people to make decisions about the work they do. I’ve helped leaders make strong efforts at empowerment and find that the change from paternalistic cultures is slow.

Peter Block described a simulation his colleague Joel Henning designed, which rings true in most of my experience:

Three teams role-played high-control patriarchal leadership, cosmetic empowerment, and genuine participation and empowerment. The high control group was quiet, had their arms folded, and had one or two pale, informational questions at the end. When asked their feelings about the meeting, they said they felt controlled and punished.

The cosmetic empowerment team had many questions, all of which were cynical and reeked of barter and deal making. They asked, “What’s in it for me?” and “Where did this fad come from?” They wanted the leaders to prove their sincerity. There was a lot of laughter and energy during the meeting. Upon reflection, they felt manipulated and doubtful, although they admired the cleverness of the strategy.

The genuine participation group went last and when they shared their intention to involve everyone in defining the program and solution the employees would have none of it. They wanted a common vision and strategy, they wanted to know what was expected of them and were fed up with this soft, open-ended non-solution. They questioned who was in charge and who was going to steer the ship to a safe harbor. They wanted to know what management was going to do to fix the problem. In processing the meeting, they felt management had abdicated. The employees had 20 suggestions about how the team could have done a better job and voted no confidence.

What disturbed Block?

  • We resent patriarchy and its dominance,
  • We become cynical at attempts at cosmetic change,
  • Yet faced with the prospects of real participation and accountability for an unpredictable tomorrow, patriarchy begins to look better and better.

Block concluded that while we may talk blithely about the end of command and control, emotionally we miss it when it’s gone. If we are offered real choice and power, we push our leaders back into a controlling and directive stance. Our lips may say no to a benevolent monarch, but our eyes say yes. Leaders see the longing for good parenting in our eyes, and they have little choice but to respond.

Genuine empowerment carries freedom, responsibility, and accountability with it. We get to make choices about the work that we do. We get to select between alternatives that matter. It is our job to make our decisions real and to implement action steps. We get rewarded or punished, praised or criticized for our choices and actions. We get to act like adults and are treated like grownups. Many of us don’t want this level of adulthood in our work lives. Many of us, instead, want freedom from responsibility and escape from conflict.

Genuine involvement is messy, difficult, and time consuming. Reactive problem-solvers have to learn to be imaginative anticipators and that is hard to do—maybe impossible. People disconnected from others throughout their competitive work histories have to learn to listen, engage, connect, cooperate, compromise, empathize with others, and find win-win solutions. People who only feel okay when they are accomplishing a task have to learn to sit still, think, and engage with others.

Many of us don’t want to develop new emotional and intellectual muscles. When put in a situation that asks us to stretch, we can’t get away fast enough. We may prefer to be one of the walking dead so prevalent in our organizations. Aliveness is way too threatening for us.

Why do we need a higher standard?

In the past decade alone billions were spent on leadership development and employee involvement and empowerment programs. How’s it working for us?

Today Gallup research shows that 74% of American workers are disengaged clock-watchers who cannot wait to go home. We know that the vast majority of change efforts are deemed failures by those who lead them. The sustainability of Fortune 500 companies pales in comparison to its potential.

We can’t afford to continue with the status quo: Not as a nation, a company, or a person.

2 thoughts on “A Higher Standard

  1. I applaud this entry. I believe we all need to act as adults. We need to take responsibility for our actions. In my view it is self-empowerment to figure out how to make the group work for the betterment of all and for the company. Yes, it can be messy, but in my view, one is empowered when one says how the company or group can change so that one becomes passionate about what one is doing. I believe it is possible to make your work place one where one likes to go and knows one is making a positive difference in the lives of those around you. Margaret Eubank


  2. How can employees be expected to embrace or even feel safe acting in ways foreign to what they learned growing up? It seems that most people are taught to look to authority to ‘be the beacon.’ Our schools work pretty hard to teach us to be good followers. The authoritarian, hierarchical workplaces expect and perpetuate it, frequently at all costs.

    I am not fond of the term ‘higher’ standard. I do agree, though, the ‘standard’ needs change. And I think it’s possible, but will have to happen by subtle means, by a slow infiltration of the status quo.


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