Do You Empower or Control Your Staff?

Let’s start at the beginning; workers are focused on task and skills. Management is about managing resources and they treat people (staff or workers) as a resource (skills).  The focus of a manager is the mission.  Leadership is about influencing people and they treat people (staff or workers) as assets.  Advancement is generally from worker to manager to leader.  The general rule of thumb is that if you know the job you will be a worker; if you know why you are doing the job you will be a manager and if you know where you are going you will be a leader.   That is a generality but it does define the roles some.

OK, that is a good theoretical definition, what about a practical example or as it was stated to me – isn’t the focus still getting the job done.  Yes results are what we are after and the effectiveness of leadership is much better than that of management to get the job done.  Businesses tend to use management skills for short-term solutions (we need revenue now or we need a task done now) and leadership skills to grow or stabilize (we need to expand our market or we need to stabilize and improve our effectiveness).

Almost by the definition of the roles, managers are controllers and leaders will empower.  Remember, managers control resources.  When you are a controller a limited amount of authority is delegated. If you empower a significant amount of authority is delegated. In general a high performance law firm requires empowerment; however there is a place for both styles and each style has its advantages and disadvantages. In either style you will probably delegate something.

Eventually you will delegate because there are just too many elements to running a successful law firm to continue doing it alone. As the law firm grows in size the need to delegate increases due to the complexity of the organization. Owners, lawyers, administrators and managers should concentrate on the activities they do that bring the most value to the firm. All other activities should be delegated.  The amount of authority you choose to include with that delegation will determine if you are using the controlling or the empowering style.

The problem is, many law firm owners and lawyers do not want to give up control.  They have limited their growth potential. Delegation and empowerment brings with it the potential for growth by giving your staff opportunities.  People also like to be part of the solution. Beyond that delegation builds trust.

Part of the consideration on which style to use is the skill level of the person being delegated to and the relative importance of the task being delegated.  Because you probably have staff with various levels of skill and a variety of task you should have the opportunity to practice both styles.  If you find yourself stuck in the controlling style look at all the tasks you have available that could be delegated and identify some that could be used with the empowering style.  When I was first promoted into a leadership position I had a difficult time with the empowering style.  I was reluctant to delegate any authority.  I had to purposefully identify task that I could delegate with full authority so that I could build trust within the team and provide opportunity for staff to grow.

If you do not learn how to delegate both task and authority you will be limited to the amount of work that you alone can produce.  You may think that this is not true if you delegate work.  The problem is if you do not also delegate some authority along with the responsibility you spend time checking on the work.  This takes time away from your assigned work.

There are several ways to mitigate the risk with full empowerment.  The best approach I have seen is a well-documented system with checks and balances. If the processes, procedures and policies are well documented everyone has the opportunity to know what is expected.  If there are good business metrics in place any potential problem can be identified well before it becomes a concern.

Recent research suggests that the opportunity to exercise personal choice (and complete meaningful work) is an important element contributing to employee engagement. Empowering your staff provides them with opportunities to make their own decisions with regards to their tasks.

In the book Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute, the authors, Ken Blanchard, John P. Carlos, and Alan Randolph, talk about the elements that must be considered to empower your staff.

  • Share information with everyone – By sharing information with everyone, you are giving them a clear picture of the team and its current situation.  The “team” can be the entire firm or a subset like the Workers Compensation division. This develops trust and provides the information the staff needs to make decisions.  This also gives all the team members a sense of belonging.
  • Replace the old hierarchy with self-managed teams – this is what we refer to as a high performance team. By replacing the old hierarchy with self-managed teams, more responsibility and authority is delegated to the team which will create better communication and productivity. This also implies that some authority was delegated to the team.