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  • Writer's pictureRyan Liddle

Empowering your culture

If you do a search on ‘Organisational Cultures’, you quickly realise that an empowering culture will deliver superior outcomes than a ‘command and control’ based culture. You will find many case studies of organisations that have realised this vision and strong positive correlation with their overall business performance. Some these will even dig into the leaders and what strengths they have that makes them standout against the masses, providing a strong Employee Value Proposition, with engagement scores that are off the charts.

So that we are all on the same page, I agree with Deal and Kennedy that organisational culture is:

‘the way we do things around here’.

It is the culmination of all the values, behaviours, policies, rules, acceptable norms, explicit and implicit processes. With the last point, implicit, your organisational culture is what it is regardless of what is written down. Understanding the drivers towards and away from where you want to be, will enable leaders to make conscious decisions and promote the type of culture you are seeking.

An issue exists for people trying to drive this shift. What does ‘empowering’ actually look like in action? What does it take to realise the movement in your underlying culture? How do you understand what is holding you back? To help with this, I’ve put together some common descriptions of empowerment that I have used in a number of circumstances and then I propose some ideas to help understand the change initiative required to support your transformation.

The term Empowerment really came into its own back in the 1980’s thanks to the work of social scientist, Julian Rappaport, with an individual becoming stronger, more confident with ‘measures designed to increase the degree of autonomy and self-determination, enabling people to represent their interest in a responsible way, acting with their own authority.’ When an individual feels empowered, they make better decisions. This simple outcome is what see’s the organisations in the case study achieve significantly better results than the market.

Let’s say you are on a ‘journey’ to deliver this particular shift in culture for your organisation, move from a ‘command and control’ to an ‘empowering’ culture. How do you break it down? What are some key building blocks that add up to an outcome of empowerment? Even though each organisation has its own peculiarities and intricacies, we can build a framework the Why and How and then the ‘WHAT’ becomes the specific activities for the organisation in question.

There is a little irony in this situation too. You may be ‘empowered’ to evolve your culture from ‘command and control’ to ‘empower and trust’ and yet there are certain ingredients that you will need. Years ago I read through the Netflix culture manifesto (read more about it here) and the irony was evident in that situation. Here I was reading more than 100 pages of ‘how to operate’ in an environment of ‘little rules’. Rather than consider the rules that stop people from doing particular things that have negative outcomes, Netflix outlined the boundaries (or rules of the game) that empower people to play and operate within. An empowered culture is not rule-less, it is a culture where people understand the decision making limits that are provided to them, inspiring their creativity and experimentation to explore and challenge, finding new ways to get things done.

Drilling down into what really needs to be there and understanding empowerment in an organisational context, I have usually looked for at least 3 key factors for an environment of empowerment to exist:

  • Capability: leadership must ensure / provide their team with the capability to do what is asked

  • Freedom: leadership must provide the space and autonomy for their team to do what is needed

  • Support: when the team puts their hand up for help, leadership must provide support to help steer

From recent experience I added a fourth cultural condition that is critical:

  • Accountability: leadership must provide clarity on expected/desired outcomes to enable people to achieve

The main reason for bringing Accountability into the empowerment space is to ensure the focus is on the outcomes and not on the outputs. With any change initiative, we can often get stuck on the solution, the thing we are building, the outputs, rather than on the outcome. When we are output fixated, we often lose sight of why we are doing something and miss warning signs , putting in place solutions that no one uses or don’t meet the needs of the people that are meant to benefit from these solutions.

One organisation that has consistently got accountability right is Amazon. In the FY18 letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos talks about high standards and how this enables them to deliver on customer expectations. In particular, Bezos comments on the need to ‘recognise’ the exact meaning of the high standards in a particular area, and then you must set the ‘scope’ for realistic expectations in that area. These standards need to be: teachable, domain specific, recognisable and explicitly coach on them. Bezos writes:

“Building a culture of high standards is well worth the effort and there are many benefits.”

This is accountability in action for Amazon.

Recently I have been helping researchers increase their ability to engage with the industries that benefit from their research. With the focus of the workshop on building strong relationships, we spend a lot of time discussing how to build trust and use this model: The Trust Equation.

This equation is evaluated considering two forces. Above the line are those factors that build trust. The higher the score in these individual factors, the more that trust is likely to exist in the relationship. Below the line is a factor that detracts from trust. The higher the score here, the more likely that trust does not exist in the relationship.

Using the model of the trust equation, I propose there is now a similar way to think about empowerment: (Capability + Freedom + Support) x Accountability squared.

Rather than using the forces in the trust equation, here you can apply a simple 0,1,3 scale for each factor, with zero being no evidence of this factor, 1 being some evidence and 3 being high/consistent evidence of this factor in the culture. I started with multiplying just by accountability however I didn’t think that emphasised the importance of this factor enough. As you can see from the diagram, each element is enabled by accountability. Above and beyond this, accountability also stands alone as factor that drives a strong culture. Simplifying the equation, we end up with accountability impacting the culture from at least 2 angles, hence the ‘square’ in the equation.

This takes care of the accountability aspect on each of the other factors in their own right and importance of accountability in the overall culture too. The idea here is not that you can turn empowerment into a mathematical equation and analyse to the nth degree what is going wrong. The idea is that you can help leaders understand the relationships between these 4 factors and then self-assess as to where they can improve. By highlighting accountability as key to each factor, any change to behaviours and approaches should be planned with accountability in mind. This way we will look at the outcomes that are achieved and limit the focus on outputs.

As we understood from the Amazon example and from the importance of Accountability, understanding the expectation enables Leaders to measure progress and success and make change as required to achieve the desired outcome. In driving cultural change, providing people a picture of the end game, even if it’s articulated as how people think (mindsets) and what people do (behaviour), creates accountability in the expected impact and enables people to invest in cultivating a culture of empowerment. Here are some questions that could be asked against the factors to understand your opportunity for improvement:


  • Do we understand the capability of people against the outcomes they are meant to achieve?

  • Do we provide all the capability required to achieve the outcomes?

  • When outcomes aren’t achieved, do we look to see if the capabilities were in place to enable the outcomes?


  • Are individuals provided the space to make decisions?

  • Do people understand the boundaries they are allowed to make decisions within and how this fits into the overall governance and delegation framework?

  • Do Leaders stand by the decisions made by their people, learning from the opportunities that arise even when outcomes are suboptimal?


  • When someone puts their hand up, is support available to understand how to move forward?

  • Do Leaders actively coach their people to outcomes rather than step in and do it for them?

  • Does the environment value experimentation and learning from failure rather than expecting success first time?


  • Have we explained the link between strategic outcomes and the individual?

  • Do we see ownership of outcomes and individual drive to make things happen?

  • Do Leaders regularly review performance against expected outcomes, understanding the gap and why, resetting the expectations and ensuring resources are in place to make it happen?

Using this framework, you can look at how empowerment can/does exist in your organisation. The equation can be applied broadly, through developing a tool that enables individuals and leaders to score on each of the factors through a series of questions. You can also use it on an personal level, discussing with an single leader how they empower their people and where there might be an opportunity for improvement.

At Think Different Anyday, we are in the process of developing a standard survey tool to enable people to measure their maturity on this critical behaviour. We are interested to hear from organisations that would like to pilot our idea. Reach out to if you would like to be a part of the pilot.

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