Diverse People Holding Hands Trust ConceptI hear often project managers to ask for empowerment in order to be able to manage their teams. I also hear managers to talk to team members and explain to them things about their responsibility expecting that their “given per definition” empowerment will be enough to convince and motivate.

The word power has indeed something to do with motivation, but it is important to think about where is this power coming from and where is it directed?

Empower the person in charge?

Let us empower the project manager so that the people listen to him. 

I have always asked myself how empowerment is “given” to a person in charge. Is it by nomination? Is it by announcement?

Before I make a long story short, maybe we should think, that what we want to succeed in projects is a good team performance, because the team is the one organisational unit that really should deliver results relevant to project objectives. Thus the main thinking behind this whole empowerment idea is to improve team performance. In a few words we believe that “empowerment of project managers improves team performance”. This can be in some cases very right, but also very wrong, based on the interpretation that we give it.

  • In practice, empowerment is usually passed to the project manager as an accountability for project objectives. This is not only against all project management standards, but leads also to a scared project manager, or someone that is only looking at his interests which are to achieve project goals no matter what the team considers to be important, no matter if some things do not make sense, ignoring risks and “bad-news-filtered” communication.
  • The team becomes passive and often angry, which really does not have to do with its capability to perform, but with lack of motivation. The team is not accountable, or responsible so it just does not care when things do not make sense.
  • Managers expect better control (that people will do what the project manager commands), due to the authority given by defined empowerment, but where on earth does the project manager know what has to be done or what has to be controlled? The team is producing, thus the team knows better. The project manager should be listening, leading, setting limits and removing any obstacles from the way such as wrong expectations.

Make the team responsible

Sounds like a good idea, but now, what happens is, that management passes (also per announcement) the responsibility to the team. The team is responsible for project deliverables “per simple definition”, but this only causes the problem of fear and missing motivation to multiply, having more scared people in the project mainly taking care to cover their ass (CYA, CYOA) resulting in delays and only in some best cases to a military way of following requirements, delivering in best case what was defined, but not what was expected.

Common sense team motivation & development

Do not forget that our primary goal is to increase performance by empowerment to motivate people to deliver. Nevertheless motivation does not have to do with rational explanations, but with emotional involvement and commitment.

Please think for a second about when do you really take responsibility for something. Only when you are convinced (emotionally!) that what you will do makes sense, it is fun, it leads to great results. Taking responsibility coexists with motivation and commitment.

One could argue though that fear is a strong emotional involvement, but fear leads to act in a very restricted way. Maybe a team managed by fear can fulfill short term specific objectives of an activity, but it does not lead to sharing, open communication and trust.

Who needs open communication or trust? 

A simple  answer we would be that it is well known that communication is important for the project. But if you still have difficulties undertstanding this and you focus only on numbers, then try to explain how you would identify and manage risks in an working environment where risks are not communicated due to a fear culture.

Empowerment has to be gained and naturally created

Now from a project manager point of view, if you have the feeling that your team is not performing you can look of course at standard technical, organizational or administrative things that have to be in place to improve the situation. Nevertheless make sure that

  • You personally are motivated and you commit to project deliverables. Be a raw model to your team with regards to project objectives. If you cannot, the team does not need you and you will never get the empowerment you would like to have.
  • Pass this passion to your team, by explaining the big picture, explain the benefits of this project to the company/organization. If you do not believe in it, no one else will.
  • If necessary,  map these interests to the interests of the individual team members (e.g. if company benefits do not work for external employees then try the perspective of further interesting and profitable assignments)
  • Listen to what your people are telling you and support them.
  • Do not blame the team or individuals for mistakes, take the blame.
  • If you need rules, then each rule should have a clear benefit for the team.

The person in charge has indeed to be empowered, but not from higher management by announcement, but from the people who really do the work, the team.The team empowers itself and takes responsibility only if it sees personal as well as benefits for the organization as a whole.

Empowerment is a process that should change the traditional way we think about power and relationships. We should be able to recognize it when it is really in place, by the fact that no one as an individual really has power without the collective thinking and acting of the team.