Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Are We Really Empowered?

Dear Crucial Skills,

In my organization, I keep hearing that senior management does not empower middle management and that middle management does not empower the front line workers.

How can Crucial Conversations help every level feel more empowered?


Seeking Power

Dear Seeking Power,

When the empowerment movement became popular in the mid 80s, the results were mixed. The intent was to allow individuals who were closest to information to take part in decision making.

The rationale was simple enough–just because you’re at the top of the organization doesn’t mean you have the information you need to make informed decisions and just because you’re at the bottom doesn’t mean you don’t have the information. In most organizations, this meant that many of the decisions that had formerly been made by mangers or supervisors would now be made by people somewhere down the chain.

The reason the empowerment movement experienced mixed results was because it was frequently misunderstood. Hourly employees were often erroneously informed that now they would take part in most, if not all, of the decisions. In their minds, they weren’t empowered unless they were granted permission to make all decisions, or at least play a big role in them. This, of course, was untrue and caused a lot of people to feel disappointed, even betrayed.

The solution to problems with empowerment often lies in clarifying expectations. The goal of empowerment is not to lower decision making, but to allow individuals who have access to the most complete and accurate information to use it to make informed choices–where choices are an option. It’s important to make this distinction because even if you have a great deal of information, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a choice.

For example, when it comes to deciding what to do at work, much of what we do comes in the form of a command. We have no choice. The marketplace sets the price, the customer sets the delivery date, the government sets the safety standard, etc. Even the president of a company receives much of his or her work in the form of a command. That’s just how things are.

Even when someone within your organization does get to make a choice, it doesn’t mean that you personally get to decide. The greater the number of people affected by a decision, the more difficult it would be to involve all of them in making the choice. For example, when deciding where to move a new office that houses 200 people, you aren’t going to bring all 200 into a room and talk until everyone agrees. All are affected, all have a huge stake, and yet involving everyone is simply too unwieldy. That’s why we have a representative government. We don’t make laws by consensus; we select a handful of people to make the choice for us. Within corporations, we make many decisions by consulting with people, and then allowing a much smaller group–often a committee–to actually make the choice.

Problems arise with the consulting process when we ask people for their input (consulting with them) but they think that they have the final say. They think the decision will be made by consensus. You’re in a consulting mode, and others think they’re actually deciding. Avoid this common mistake by (1) clarifying that you’re consulting with people and (2) identifying who will eventually make the final choice. This lets people know that they themselves won’t be making the final choice as well as who they need to talk to if they want to be heard.

The role of healthy dialogue in decision making should be clear. Talk openly about who is making key decisions and why. If you’re being given a mandate over which you have no control, clarify that the decision has been made and it’s your job to decide how to do it. If you do have a choice and you think many people need to be involved, then consult with them and let them know exactly what you’re doing.

Finally, when everyone needs to come to a shared decision (when you’re making a decision by consensus), clarify that you won’t move on until everyone is in agreement. This is where dialogue is most important. Everyone needs to have a say. You have to make it safe for those who disagree to speak openly, while the group is still talking about the issue. Encourage dissenting views. Play devil’s advocate. Call on people who haven’t said much to ensure that they get a chance to speak. Make it clear that there is no room for pretending to agree, waiting for the meeting to disburse, and then trying to undo the decision by talking to people one-on-one. Bring the group together and stick with the issue until everyone willingly supports the choice. This doesn’t mean that everyone gets their first choice, but that they will support whatever decision is made, as if it were their first choice.

Now, let’s move to a gray area. When members of one level of the organization complain that members from the level above them don’t empower them, it’s time to talk about who makes what choices and why. One group thinks they have adequate information and skill to make certain choices, but aren’t being giving the opportunity to choose. They feel unnecessarily constrained or micromanaged. This plays itself out in a variety of forms. For instance, they only have decision authority over a small dollar figure. They need signatures from two levels above them–from people who have less information and only slow things down on matters that feel routine. Those who are doing the constraining obviously feel the need to do so. They fear that if they don’t weigh in with their point of view, people will make poor choices.

So, how do you decide who’s right and who’s wrong?

Once again, it’s time for open dialogue. As a team, list the decisions you routinely make and who makes them–including approvals, budgets, policies, and signatures. Then decide as a group if the decision is being made by the right person or persons and by the right method. Take on the decisions that you think are being handled poorly. Where do you feel as if you are unduly constrained and why? Are there places where you feel the opposite–abandoned and given too much responsibility–given your skill set and access to information? Finally, make sure you discuss areas where you feel second guessed. You’re given authority but if things don’t go right, people are all over you. When does this happen and why?

As you can see, when it comes to empowerment, there’s plenty of room for holding crucial conversations. But before you say a word, make sure you’ve thought through the issues I’ve just described.

Good Luck!

Kerry Patterson

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

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