The Practice of Empowerment
David Gershon explains how to change the behavior and internal culture within an organization using the empowerment method.
The practice of empowerment is the process of enabling individuals to adopt new behaviors that further their individual aspirations and that of the organization. It is based on 30 years of research and practice and has been applied by hundreds of change practitioners in organizations throughout the world.
One feature of this model that differentiates it from many approaches to organizational change is the focus on both the individual and the collective enterprise. Individuals grow and achieve outcomes important to them, which also benefits the whole. And the group becomes a resource to enable the individual to achieve these outcomes. This mutual accountability strengthens the commitment level of both the individual and group, enabling greater sustainability for the change initiative over the long term.
To enable any organization to adopt new behaviors, that can translate into desired business objectives, first requires the establishment of a learning and growth culture. Many change interventions assume that an organization’s learning and growing capacity is inherent. They neglect to see if the cultural ingredients necessary to enable learning and growing are present. These pre-conditions are rarely present and as a result, thisseverely limits the organization’s ability to achieve the desired behavior changes.
Using the analogy of nature, for new seeds (behaviors) to take root, grow and thrive, they need fertile soil. Creating this fertile soil (a learning and growth culture) I call “empowering the space.” An empowered space enables individuals to feel safe and trusting enough to risk true growth. What follows is a brief overview of the empowering the space practices.
Empowering the Space Organizational Practices
- Self-Responsibility: At the organizational level, individuals take responsibility to have their job, team, function, and organization, the way they wish it to be. This is the counterpoint to being a victim within the organization.
- Authentic Communication: Individual communication is open, honest, transparent, and vulnerable. Individuals are talking about the real issues going on in the organization.
- Trust: Individuals feel safe enough to try out new behaviors and take risks without fear of reprimand or put down by superiors or colleagues if they make mistakes. There is a genuine sense of good will that pervades the organization.
- Personal and Group Process Skills: Individuals within the organization have established protocols and developed skills that are regularly deployed to resolve interpersonal issues that come up in project management or within the group dynamics. Issues are resolved quickly and cleanly.
- Learning and Growing: Within the framework of the organization, individuals are encouraged to work on the real behaviors they need to change. Individuals are encouraged to challenge themselves and support each other to both learn and grow.
- Caring: The organizational leadership demonstrate in tangible ways concern for individuals. Individuals feel valued and are inspired to give their very best effort on behalf of the organization.
The role of the empowerment practitioner is to create an environment where these six practices and behaviors are embodied in the group experience. Once the group has personally experienced that profound growth is possible, it wants to bring this back to their normal working environment. The practitioner then helps the group establish the daily practices that allow a learning and growth culture to take root within their everyday work environment.
The change process originates from the inside out and is reinforced by the group because it furthers their own growth and development. It works because it is driven by the self-interest of the individuals who once they experience the personal growth benefits want to maintain them. It does require empowerment practices and a support system to sustain it. These empowerment practices are contained in the 3-part empowerment model.
A Shift From a Pathological to a Vision-Based Approach to Growth
The first part of the empowerment model looks at where we focus our attention when we attempt to create change. The empowerment model’s premise is that where we place our mental attention is what we create. If we focus on our problems, we gain insight into them. If we focus on solutions, or what we want, we gain insight into this. It is a much more efficient use of our time to focus on solutions or a vision of what we want. Otherwise we can get trapped in the paralysis of analysis.
Shifting our focus from what doesn’t work in what we are doing to what can work also motivates us to take action. We are inspired by our vision rather than enervated by our problems. It’s the difference in planting a garden from focusing on removing rocks, roots, and weeds to envisioning the flowers or vegetables in full bloom. One seems laborious, the other engaging. You still need to remove the rocks, but you are focused on a bountiful garden. This part of the model can be summarized as a shift from a pathological to a vision-based approach to growth.
A Shift From Static to Organic Growth (Growing Edge)
The second part of the empowerment model describes an approach to personal growth derived from observing growth in the natural world. If a tree is alive, it is always growing. There is always the next phase of growth. The precise phase where this growth comes into existence in a tree is its growing edge. That is the place of its greatest aliveness and vitality. Similarly the places where you will feel your greatest aliveness and vitality are your growing edges.
The alternative to this, which is how many of us view the growth process, is static. There is a place to get to, and I’m either there or not. Until I get there, I’m frustrated or discontent—and when I get there, my growth around that issue is over. It is a fixed or static approach to the process of growth. This part of the model can be summarized as a shift from static to organic growth (the growing edge).
Integration of Self-Awareness and Behavior Change
The third part of the empowerment model looks at the mechanism for enabling us to actually adopt the desired behavior change. Many growth processes assume that if we are aware of something we should do, we will do it. The focus of the processes is on increasing our self-awareness. While awareness increases our self-knowledge, by itself, it rarely leads to a change in behavior. If you need proof of this, think of all the things you know you should do, but don’t.
On the other hand, we can set a goal for something we want, harness our wills to achieve it, and then discover to our chagrin after we achieve it that it wasn’t really what we wanted. We did not have enough self-awareness and were acting out someone else’s vision for our lives, not our own. This third part of the model can be summarized as the integration of self awareness with the ability to achieve a desired outcome.
To make the empowerment model’s growth strategy operational, the facilitator is trained to design the transformational change architecture and facilitate the personal growth process around four-steps. I call this the empowerment methodology or transformational operating system. Each step is associated with a corresponding question.
1. Awareness: Where am I now?
2. Vision: Where do I want to go?
3. Transformation: What do I need to change to get there?
4. Growth: What’s my next step?
The overall change intervention begins with an empowering organization assessment to help a department or organization understand the current ability of the culture to enable behavior change. It evaluates the culture on the six practices described previously.
The next step is a rigorous interview process with senior leadership to determine the business outcomes they desire and the specific behaviors needed to produce them. Once these performance metrics are established, a customized behavior change program can be designed using the empowerment architecture.
The behavior change program is then piloted with a group of interested individuals (early adopters) and adjustments are made based on measurable feedback of the behavior changes. This learning process usually goes on for several iterations before it stabilizes as a fully mature behavior change program. At this stage, it can be scaled up and either delivered by the external consultant or transferred through a capacity-building program to internal change leaders.
In summary, an empowering organization behavior change intervention has five steps.
Step 1: Assess the culture’s ability to learn and grow.
Step 2: Determine the business outcomes and specific behaviors needed to achieve it.
Step 3: Design the behavior change program by integrating the learning and growth cultural changes and desired behaviors into the empowerment architecture.
Step 4: Pilot the program with early adopters and make adjustments based on its effectiveness in achieving the behavior changes.
Step 5: Scale up program delivery by external consultant or build internal capacity.
This is a robust and proven methodology for changing behavior in organizations. It has the added benefit of serving as a catalyst to cultural change. Practitioners who wish to learn this methodology can participate in the Empowerment Institute Certification Program.