By Keith

Have you ever worked with someone who can’t seem to do things on their own, someone who needs their hand held all the time? What about someone who questions everything that crosses their desk? Or maybe, you’ve experience the opposite end of the spectrum; someone who never asks for permission and is always begging for forgiveness? Or the micro-management type, who needs to be involved with everything at all times.

I’ve worked with all these people, and I’ve been them at one time or another. In my mind none of these ways of working is very healthy to a team environment and they’re almost always a roadblock to getting valuable things accomplished. Now, I’m not 100% sure how these behaviors start, but my guess is that it starts with trust.

Or lack thereof.

h3. Traditional Office Culture Sucks Ass

One of the reasons why I went out on my own is that I was sick of dealing with politics. Just about everywhere I’ve worked there has been almost as much “positioning” as there has been working. You may have heard or experienced the terms “empire building”, “roadblocking”, “micro-management”, “mucky-muck”, etc. Those are bad words. Words I hope to never use again.

They all stem from what I see as an overall lack of trust. You’ve got those who don’t trust anyone else to do anything right. You’ve got those who don’t trust themselves to make a decision without stepping on toes. I could go on, but the point is this:

If you’re working in a culture that lacks trust, you can’t do your best work.

You’ve got to work to erase these behaviors and it’s not an easy task.

h3. Define Roles Then Empower

First and foremost I think you’ve got to make sure EVERYONE–from the CEO to the intern–feels empowered to do their job. This starts by making sure they understand what they’re supposed to do. I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to who aren’t sure exactly what their role is. You can imagine that’s a problem. If you don’t know your role, get with your superiors and figure it out. No one needs that stress.

So, you need to make it 100% clear what everyone is expected to be doing. Next, people need to know that it’s ok for them to do that. Makes sense right? Well, again, I’ve been in this situation and know many others who have as well. You know your job, but you feel like you can’t take initiative. Here’s when the empowerment comes in.

If you find that an coworker keeps coming to you with questions or for reassurance you might not be doing enough to make him or her feel empowered. Let them know you trust them. Make sure you thank them (it’s amazing how often this gets forgotten) and that you let them know you appreciate what they’re doing.

On the flip side, you need to tell someone when they’re not performing, or when they’re overstepping. I’ve worked with people who do too much and take responsibility away from others. This creates resentment and reinforces a lack of empowerment. Usually these people think they’re helping, so be gentle. But be firm.

h3. The Perfect Office Culture…

…probably doesn’t exist, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to provide an environment where everyone feels trusted, empowered and a part of the team. If you’re working in a job that can’t seem to provide that for you, my advice would be to look elsewhere. Sure, nowhere is perfect, but you might find a better fit somewhere else. Or, you could do what I did and go out on your own.

(Not that running your own business is perfect either, but at least I’ve got the ability to address these things head on. I hope that as we grow I don’t lose site of that.)

I don’t have all the answers and wish I could give you an easy “how to” on how to create perfect office culture. What I can tell you is that if you’ve got a problem, talk about it and don’t avoid the hard discussions. Work is a big part of our lives and we all have a right to a job we enjoy and can succeed at.

3 Comments on Empowerment and Office Culture

  1. I’m dealing with that right now at my job and have been trying to have the difficult discussions. It’s a challenge. I did engage in some great discussions today and felt so much better.

    It’s too easy to sulk about it and not do anything. People get stuck in their roles and forget that they work with humans.

    I’ll try to create a post once I get through this and write about any lessons I’ve learned.

  2. Silvia says:

    In my country, Brazil, I always complain people do no train any “beginners” properly, no matter the level. By this, I mean to explain the task, see the person doing the task and correct everything till the person learn what is expected. I always do this, and even ask employees to do the same for me when I need. It is like Alexander’s Techinic, we think we are aligned but we are not.

    I keep checking a few times and help the person to improve. It usually works. I also explain the reasons and the principles involved.

  3. H. P. Katzenloher says:

    Although I respect those who make efforts to change office culture, I think it’s futile. Large corporations tend to attract people who subscribe to the attitudes which lead to the prevailing office culture. The larger a corporation gets, the more unlikely it is that it innovates. Common office culture and large companies are the natural enemy of innovation, because most of the effort and energy go into the management of the complexity. Employees get distracted from what a company actually does to make profit. Instead they waste time, energy and knowledge sitting in meetings, droning about processes and corporate politics and fantasizing about mission statements.
    Maybe I’m overly pessimistic. But my advice is, if you can’t cope with office culture, don’t try to change it – at least not fundamentally. Culture is about people and people are usually not changed that easily. Think about starting your own business. You may find it very relieving, although starting your own business has it’s own challenges, but that’s another story.

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