June 15, 2017

What has gone wrong in most workplaces with empowerment of employees and teams? Author Janelle Brittain raised this question, and then observed, “In the traditional hierarchical workplace environment, people often complained that they were powerless and, ‘if management would just listen to us and give us some authority,’ then everything would straighten out.”

Brittain continued: “In the 1990s, teams often were introduced as a solution to this complaint…and ‘anointed’ with the power and authority to make some decisions. They responded with a variety of reactions, from disbelief and skepticism that they really had the power… to ‘Let’s take this power and get all the things we always wanted.’ The power struggles that ensued caused many a team to self-destruct.”

Something about teams at work has gone awry, according to Brittain.

Brittain, author of “Star Team Dynamics: 12 Lessons Learned from Experienced Team Builders,” then suggested an answer for failed teams at work. The answer, she said, creating a new distribution of power with Star Teams.

Here’s how she explained Star Teams: “Unlike the traditional triangle- or pyramid-shaped organization — which places the boss on top and employees on the bottom — Star Team organizations are built on strong inter-relationships among all people, departments and customers. When you draw a star, you draw one continuous line to create the whole design. With a Star Team, each member has their own area of expertise, but they are all integral to and dependent on one another to complete the whole.”

Deciding when and how much power to give to each team requires strategic thought. If too much power is given too early, team members often fight more because they are afraid to make decisions and risk a mistake. It’s also important to clearly define what decisions the team has the authority to make.

When redistributing power through teams, Brittain said, address three factors:

1. What is the goal of giving the team the power? Power centers around the authority to make decisions. Here are some examples:

      • The team is closer to the problem, often having information management does not have. Thus the team may have insights into the problem, project or situation others above the team may never think of.
      • When team buy-in is important, in order to assure productive implementation or functioning, then the team needs to be involved in the decision-making.
      • When the span of control of managers is too large to handle all daily decision and problems, then power should be shared with a team.

2. Specifically, what are the parameters of the power? “This is absolutely critical,” Brittain said. “Lack of a clear definition of power and decision-making authority can cause disaster, and can defeat the very purpose of passing the power to the team.”

Some examples: Management sets the goal, budget and deadline, the team designs a plan to reach goals within the allotted budget and deadline. Management decides what equipment will be brought in, the team decides how to set it up, and who will work with what equipment. Management sets the vision and long-range goal, then the team sets and implements all short and mid-range goals and timelines.

3. How much training will the team need in order to learn how to use the power? “You can’t expect a team to suddenly possess the skills to make insightful decisions overnight,” Brittain said. “Simultaneously, we throw at teams the challenge of learning how to come to consensus. A tall order, since most managers don’t even have the skill.”

Teams need to be well informed in order to make the best decisions. According to Brittain, traditional managers usually have three concerns about letting go of information:

Will I Lose Power By Giving Up This Information?

“Traditional managers now realize they simply cannot and do not have all the answers,” Brittain explained. “The sheer quantity of information to digest has become overwhelming. As traditional managers see the necessity to share the information analysis load, the job becomes more manageable.”

Will Employees Understand the Information and Appreciate Its Importance?

For many executives it is hard to share information about the company’s “big picture.” “This has been the power tool for executives in the past, ” Brittain said.

“Most managers have been pleasantly surprised with the amount of information employees have about the issues close to their jobs,” she added. “However, when sharing big picture information such as financial status or competitive comparisons, remember this is often not only new information, but a new thought for many employees. That’s why it is important to offer a short education program about the subject, making sure to translate it into practical terms they can relate to. Offering the company’s historical picture opens many employees’ eyes and creates great pride in the company.”

Will Employees Misuse the Content?

Misuse usually happens because the user doesn’t really understand the content or how to use it, or the user has a negative agenda. “To ensure that your teams understand the information, explain the information and its impact on the team, company, customers and community,” Brittain said. “Ask questions to check for understanding.”

Handling a “negative agenda” person is a more complex challenge, Brittain pointed out. “Those with a negative agenda typically are complainers, or are filled with anger, habitually shooting down everyone’s ideas, or carrying a chip on their shoulder. Strategies to deal with them are as individual as each person. Sometimes listening to them, following through on your commitments (to build trust), or giving them some attention can help.”

By figuring out what motivates your “problem people,” you can learn how to tap into their positive contribution, according to Brittain. People are motivated by: punishment or fear, recognition, rewards, accomplishment, control, altruism, belonging.

Ask team members to rank these motivators from most important to least important. It may be the team setup does not emphasize what really matters to the “problem person.” You may simply have to remove members who continue to cause damage to the team and its goals (for example, constantly criticizing other’s ideas, not carrying through on their responsibilities), Brittain explained.

© 2017