When Employees are Reluctant to Embrace Empowerment: The Wisdom of Lady Gaga

David on Jan 18, 2017


“You can’t have my heart, And you won’t use my mind but Do what you want (with my body) Do what you want with my body”  (Lady Gaga, 2013)


I think I may be stretching my opening quote format. This said, the more I read about Lady Gaga and the challenges and traumas she appears to have overcome, the more I admire her. I saw her carpool karaoke with James Corden recently. She is much more talented than many give her credit for.  However, why you ask do I start with Lady Gaga? Well, three reasons really: (1) I received a lot of reaction to the Gary Numan post where I referenced his lyrics and tone of music (2) I felt I should try to balance my pop music quotes with something more ‘upbeat’ and (3) I am attempting to make a point about the employee side of empowerment which I think is often overlooked. So, my dear reader, on this occasion, I invite you to search your music library for a Lady Gaga song, with a recommendation to listen to Do What You Want (warning here as the video is R rated).


Is employee empowerment a panacea in organization settings? To enable empowerment is it mainly about how leaders or managers behave? Is empowerment enabled by flat organization structures? Are small, empowered, self-directed teams desirable in all social and corporate environments? As you may have guessed, I am not sure they are. And yet, I see many organizations enthusiastically pursuing this goal. I see many commentators suggesting that this is nirvana for company leaders. I observe many organizations are trying to flatten their organizations structures, remove layers of management, and ‘empower’ their front-line teams. I suppose my worry is that this may not always be sensible. Let me tell you a story……


Why Do You Have 5 Pictures On Your Desk?


I was visiting some impressive new open plan offices a few weeks ago. The environment was very 21st century, vibrant colours, lots of collaboration space, new technology, flat screen TV’s, and I stopped to talk with someone sitting at one of the desks. I couldn’t help but to comment on the pictures they had pinned up on the small divider separating their workstation from their neighbour. To break the ice, I said “So who are these people in the pictures?” Their response was stunning…”Oh I don’t actually know who they are. I was just told I should have 5 pictures on my desk!”




Incredible, I thought. Incredible because they were so honest. Incredible because that was the last response I would have expected. Incredible because somewhere along the line what was intended by well-meaning management had been translated into a blind task which was unthinkingly complied with. While there are perhaps several things we could pick apart from this story, let me centre on how an employee’s motivation, interest, desire to engage with management initiatives may be a significantly overlooked factor in the current trend toward self-directed teams and employee empowerment.


What Do we Know About The Drivers for Employee Engagement?


Let me briefly take you back to business school and remind you what Maslow and Herzberg offered from their research back in the 1950s. Below is a very inadequate summary of their work.


First Image


While both these great thinkers have some detractors, for me, even 50 years on, their work is useful and relevant. Maslow helped us think about how individuals might relate to work based on their predominant psychological needs. If they were struggling to feed their families and put a roof over their heads, they would likely relate to work very differently to a very well paid, highly educated individual from an upper middle class background. Herzberg gave us the insight (very controversial even now) that pay was not an effective incentive for those in the upper quartile of Maslow’s pyramid. He was the one who initially classified pay, along with physical work environment, as a ‘hygiene’ factor.


Despite the inherent limitations of any labelling or attempt to pigeon hole individuals (we all resist being reduced to an ‘ideal type’ and it is fair that while these are helpful illustrations they don’t really exist in the real world), this work is revealing in thinking through why some employees in certain contexts may not be interested in being ‘empowered.’ Those of you who have followed my blog will remember I’ve talked about this before when I talked about employee delight using a metaphor of a sound mixer board.


As an aside, have you also noticed how this work has been rather plagiarised and repackaged using caricatures and streamed on YouTube, and other ‘viral’ blogs (in fairness I may be a bit jealous)? It is however a testament to the continued utility and power of Maslow’s and Herzberg’s work which is, in my view, underrated in many HR and business empowerment programs.


So, What is the Disconnect in Empowerment Initiatives?


Certainly, when companies seek to empower their front line, in many cases it is entirely sensible for them to do so. Gary Hamel and others talk about the companies that have done some extraordinary things to reduce bureaucracy and costs, while increase customer experience, innovation, and speed. In these cases, I think my argument is that the business model, employee base, and social setting were supportive and conducive to this form of radical empowerment.


However, what if the context for a company is different? In some societies, like the US and much of Western Europe, the cultural paradigm is of a willingness to challenge authority and some degree of comfort with conflict. Hofstede is the father of these cultural paradigm comparisons and when I started to work more internationally in the late 1980s, his work helped me understand why otherwise good management concepts didn’t always travel well. Of course, I much preferred this reason over the possibility of ineptitude from the change management advisor. I’m sure that was not a factor at all!


What Hofsetde’s work tells us is that in some cultures, compliancy and unquestioning adherence to superiors is considered ‘the way things are.’ Equally, countries with a more collectivist and high conflict avoidance tendency will also prefer compliance over disagreement, even if they think something is wrong. Now I’m not for one instance suggesting any right or wrongs here. Merely pointing out differences. If, for example, you attempt empowerment in a country which has high power distance and high conflict avoidance, are you likely to get blind compliance to most instructions and might this be a possible explanation for why the person in my opening story acted the way they did? Moreover, isn’t blind compliance an ironic form of empowerment?


Indulging My Addiction to 2 by 4 Grids


Since I have been besieged by literarily a few people (just less than a handful), telling me my 2/4 grids are powerful explanatory vehicles, I have once again indulged myself with the one below. When I started work in consulting in the late 1980s these tools were considered the life blood of the consulting industry. A good 2by4 was worth a healthy premium on any client engagement. Oh, how I miss those halcyon days.

Second Image

In my illustration, I offer a means to think through how an empowering construct may work more easily in some contexts and not in others. To the extent I am aware, most of the examples I have read about self-directed work teams tend to fall in the upper right box. I am not aware of any that have succeeded in the context suggested by the lower left box. The quality of leadership and the nature of a company’s business model clearly have an impact. I have not included those above in an attempt to keep it simple. However, my suggestion is that companies would be well served not to look at empowerment as a panacea but try to match the right management construct with complementary employee needs. Equally, my sense is that an empowering approach requires employees to be ready to operate in Herzberg’s motivating dimensions. Should they not be ready, well, should management focus on making that shift before attempting changes in organisational paradigm?


HeadshotAbout the Author

David R Oxley is a Leadership and Organisational Change Advisor. Originally a management consultant with E&Y, David has spent the last 25 years working in senior HR positions with companies wishing to transform their operations. Currently David is advising a large Indian energy and consumer business on organisational change. David is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, the University of Phoenix, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development, and is currently pursuing his Doctorate at Cranfield University. He can be reached at David@DavidROxley.com

Originally published Jan 2017

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