Motivation and empowerment

Motivation

Last week two colleagues and I were preparing material for a leadership event when one of them challenged us to comment on the relationship between motivation and empowerment. As we shuffled around these words I thought of placing them on the two axes of a grid, with motivation on the vertical one and empowerment on the horizontal one. Having followed my impulse to draw the grid I set about figuring out what it might mean, and what emerged told an interesting story.

My attention turned first to the bottom right quadrant, representing the combination of high empowerment with low motivation. How, I asked myself, might this be manifested? Well, someone can indeed be fully empowered, but if their boss doesn’t appreciate or recognise what they do they are unlikely to feel motivated – at least not by the boss. And if the team with whom they work are a difficult lot, all the empowerment in the world won’t solve their motivation problem.

Next I focused on the top left quadrant, which represents high motivation co-existing with low empowerment. Ah yes, here we have the folk who aren’t interested in being empowered. They’re comfortable just implementing instructions and getting patted on the head for doing so. They are risk-averse, fear failure and enjoy only limited aspirations, quite likely in the lower ranks of the organisation. They are satisfied existing in their limited work environment.

I hardly bothered to explore the bottom left corner, where the unfortunate workers are neither empowered nor motivated. Who knows why? Maybe it’s their fault, maybe not, maybe partly so.

Finally, I headed to that top right quadrant, where empowerment and motivation dance happily together, each feeding the other. Actually, you’d expect the two to go together. But the revelation that became apparent as I studied my instant matrix was that this is not necessarily the case.

Further complications arise. One is that in my experience many of those who complain about being insufficiently empowered have got it all wrong (some more innocently so than others). More and more managers are desperate to delegate to those around them and to have them be empowered. But this requires the recipients of the favour to perform. Yet too often attempts by superiors at letting go have delivered poor results, with subordinates delivering work late or full of mistakes or not at all, and with them taking poor or no decisions. So the bosses have re-engaged in the detail of the activities, and this in turn easily leads to their people resenting them.

“You’re micro-managing,” they charge, “interfering in our work.” To which the manager responds: “Get it right first time, take good decisions, deliver when we agreed you would, and I’ll be delighted to delegate more and to empower you to operate without me looking over your shoulder.” After all, the letting go will allow the managers to occupy their time more productively, pursuing higher strategic matters.

We must earn the right to be empowered. Unless we are responsible, reliable and trustworthy, it won’t happen. In healthy cultures, the response to such behaviour can only be positive, with the reward being high motivation. (Unless you’re one of those characters in the upper-left quadrant.)

But will the win-win negotiating take place, migrating the players to the north-east of my matrix, or will the downward spiral persist, each level blaming the other for their ever-decreasing motivation, confining both parties to the barren south-west?

Choices have consequences, right? True – unless you feel you’re a victim, a prisoner, where choice has been removed and you believe you merely depend on the power and goodwill of others. In not a few work environments this is indeed the case, and employees – including at the most senior levels – feel trapped. But there are plenty of situations where the feeling of entrapment is actually only one of a number of options.

What lacks is the courage to break free, to risk losing the security that comes with that ongoing monthly salary. Wait a minute though. How real is that security? In a world of mergers and takeovers, of restructuring and downsizing, or just the whim of a contrary boss, this sense of being ongoingly taken care of can be but an illusion.

For many of us it is just too challenging, too inconvenient, to face such issues head on. We’ve become accustomed to having our motivation be dependent on a boss. We started out that way, when our parents acted as the sources of motivation (however positive or negative). Soon our teachers joined the team of motivators/demotivators. And then – unless we became self-employed – our bosses took over.

But it is not just entrepreneurs who must be in charge of their own motivation. One of the central characteristics of emotionally intelligent people is that they are the ones responsible for how motivated they feel. This is as good a definition as any of maturity, meaning that you have reached adulthood and outgrown childhood, that as an adult you expect to relate to other adults, without needing to retain “parent” figures in your life.

So much for this neither-either-both matrix, one that arose from a simple question. What about other matrices? My favourite is the Blake-Mouton grid that distinguishes management styles, contrasting a leader’s focus on people with their focus on tasks. Also well-known is Covey’s time-management grid that has us balance between the urgent and the important. There are many others too, among which I like the cooperation-assertiveness one; the warmth-competence one; the vitality-productivity one; and the commitment-competence one.

Take time to draw each of these grids, label the two axes and describe what’s going on in each of the four quadrants. Also, please do let me know of other such pairings, to add to my collection. But meanwhile make sure you’re doing what it takes to encourage those around you to empower you; and remember that you are the one responsible for motivating yourself.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org