HR: Help Your Leadership Overcome Their Fear of Empowerment

Gordon Dmytriw

At our annual staff retreat a few weeks ago, we took some time to talk about the importance of stewardship to our culture and the opportunity we have to help one another grow and develop. Practically speaking, this meant starting a skill gap review, led by our incredibly capable HR team. I suspect our process is not much different than the one you would recognize as your own: catalog the skills of specific jobs, create each job's skill set, assess people's skills relative to both their current job and the one they aspire to, define the gaps and then fill them with a training and development regimen.

I imagine you, like our HR team, spend a lot of your time focusing on professional development; working hard to improve the skills and abilities of your workforce. But how much of your time do you spend thinking about coaching your CEO and the rest of your senior leadership team?

I’d like to suggest an overlooked but critical leadership role of HR is to be a coach to senior leadership.

Having proportionally more influence, such attention will make a substantial contribution to the rest of your training and development efforts. One area of focus that can have a meaningful impact is by helping them recognize and overcome their natural, ingrained fear of empowerment.

As Balaji discussed in a recent Food for Thought article, Are You a CEO with Sight or Without Sight, growth demands that CEOs fly their company with instruments rather than by wire because they can’t have direct line-of-sight on all aspects of their organization. This is true for everyone around the executive table. To continue Balaji's metaphor, all pilots must learn to trust their instruments, which is not an easy thing to do. In fact, in Tom Wolfe’s great book about the early days of NASA’s space program, The Right Stuff, most crack fighter pilots washed out of the program not because they didn’t have the skills, but because they couldn’t learn to trust the team that ultimately had them, in the words of one would-be astronaut, “strapped into a tin can and have its ass lit with a hundred thousand pounds of dynamite.”

It’s hard for fighter pilots and corporate leaders to let go.

It’s hard for them to wholeheartedly trust others after being the person with their hand on the stick. Effective HR leaders understand this and actively work to help CEOs overcome their fear of empowerment. They understand that true empowerment feels like losing control.

HR is in the best position to gauge how empowered their organization is which, of course, can show up in many ways. For example, in one organization we're working with, it expressed itself in their training and development activities. Despite healthy per employee budgets, comments in their employee engagement survey consistently referenced training as a source of pain. The answers to a few questions about your PD spend might raise a red flag in your organization. Are your employees pushing their managers for more training? Are your managers fighting for larger training budgets? Do they regularly include progress reports on personal and professional development goals in the 1 X 1's? Are your training budgets going unspent (as was the case with our client)? Is there a sense of ennui around training? Do you hear comments like, “what’s the point in taking extra training, it won’t matter?”

If you feel your organization lacks sufficient energy around professional development, the underlying cause is likely a lack of empowerment. It’s your job, as the advocate for a more able, engaged workforce, to change the hearts and minds of your leadership team. Or if they are onboard but unaware of the challenges, it's your job to champion behaviors that support empowerment.

Here’s a framework for having the empowerment discussion with your leadership team.

  • Ask your leadership team to think about responsibility differently. Invite them to think about creating a workplace where responsibilities aren't assigned from manager to employee but rather, the other way around. Employees inform managers on what they’re doing and managers find ways to support and advise - leading, so to speak, from behind.
  • Ask them to consider what the culture would be like if employees didn’t seek permission before acting. What if they just assumed they had the authority to make a decision to get something that needed to get done, done?
  • Invite them to consider working in an environment in which their own direct reports consistently held them accountable when they missed their commitments. An environment where they expected to be called out if they used excuses rather than accept responsibility.
  • Ask them if conversational bias should be transparent rather than secretive and private, and to what degree. Ask them, how meaningful can professional development be if people aren’t frank with one another about their weaknesses and blind spots?

For true empowerment to gain hold, HR must recognize that giving up power feels like losing control and, whether you are the CEO, a senior executive or manager, it's human nature to resist ceding control.

The first step is for HR to lead the dialogue around the leadership table about empowerment, inviting them to think about the ways responsibility, authority, accountability and transparency are encouraged or discouraged throughout the organization.

To learn more about empowerment and leading the dialogue around the leadership table, contact our team at (503) 789-1338 or


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