Empowerment is not enough: 5 ways to drive culture change

Contrary to popular belief, empowering your teams doesn't necessarily lead to culture change. Consider this advice to achieve lasting results
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“If we just empower our people to be bold, take risks, and stop waiting around for permission to take initiative, then we could really transform.”

Sound familiar? Countless CEOs, consultants, and pundits are convinced that changing culture and driving transformation is fundamentally about empowerment.

And why not? After all, empowerment has been a core tenet of the corporate culture movement since Douglas McGregor at MIT first introduced the concept of Theory Y in the mid-70s. The theory suggests that employees, contrary to preceding decades of belief, are inherently self-motivated and seek fulfillment and meaning by doing good work.

Management’s task under Theory Y is to support employees by fostering their creativity and interdependence. This compelling idea spawned an obsession with corporate culture along with thousands of books and decades of consulting work, powering what is now a billion-dollar culture industry.

But if empowerment were the key solution, trenchant organizational and social problems such as racism, sexism, and other forms of systemic bias – or shaping entire organizations into emancipating environments for actualizing human potential – would have been solved long ago. Transforming a centuries-old manufacturer into a digital platform or scaling a startup into an organization of thousands without stifling dynamism would be relatively straightforward.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Of course, it’s not that simple. Most deliberate culture-shaping fails to produce desired outcomes. Instead, it winds up costing millions of dollars and thousands of hours in misguided energy and resources.

In reality, part of the problem is empowerment. While empowerment is often necessary, it is never sufficient to achieve complex change because it is a shallow behavioral approach to a deep and complex problem.

Culture is not about how employees feel, their attitudes, or how they behave. These might be its manifestations, but it’s not culture itself. When companies try to change culture by changing how people feel or how they behave, they’re chasing the wrong variable. 

When companies try to change culture by changing how people feel or how they behave, they’re chasing the wrong variable.

For example, I might feel empowered to exceed my departmental budget. But will I? What if I know the corporate practice is to fire managers who habitually overspend? Feelings and attitudes might be compensations for more pervasive cultural assumptions.

Furthermore, our attitudes do not often show in how we behave. Studies on the relationship between people’s self-reports of their own attitudes and observed behavior show, at best, weak correlations. Feeling empowered does not always, or even often, lead to acting empowered.

When leaders attempt to empower their teams to behave differently, this is often a proxy for absolving themselves of the need to change. It’s a false flag, suggesting that the solution lies with those lower in the organization; therefore, the problem must also exist there. This approach sidelines leadership’s role in the problem.

So, if empowerment is not enough, what is? Here are five ways leaders can enact real culture change:

  • Get smart. Commit to approaching culture in a more sophisticated way. Cultures have been studied extensively since the end of the 19th century; the idea wasn’t invented by consultants and CEOs. Culture is complex; be skeptical of simplistic solutions.
  • Get aware. Culture is knowledge. It lives in our brains as neurochemical processes. It takes shape as shared rules, beliefs, assumptions, and bits of know-how that run below conscious awareness, much like the OS in our mobile devices. We can’t be conscious of these processes unless we become aware of them.
  • Start noticing. Pay attention to your organization’s prevailing rules, beliefs, and assumptions. Is there a common logic to them? Can you name the logic? Logics are the “source code” of culture.
  • Start tracking. If there are common logics, how and where do they show up in everyday habits, routines, and processes across your business? What do these practices optimize for – are they all about minimizing risk? All about the customer? All about maximizing profit?
  • Focus on practices. Brain chemistry changes when we change habits and routines, so if you want to change culture you need to change the habits and routines of the collective. Leaders usually control and allocate the resources that make changing practices possible.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

David White
David G. White Jr, PhD, is a partner and co-founder of Ontos Global, and a cognitive anthropologist focusing on new approaches to organizational culture and change based on the emerging science of the cultural mind. At Ontos Global he helps organizations manage and sustain transformation, working with companies such as ITT, Fidelity Investments, Pratt & Whitney, and CVS.