Feeling powerless trying to create change in your business? Don’t worry, disempowerment could actually be the solution…(part 1)

I’m lucky to work with passionate and energetic people but too often I see this passion turned to pessimism and I see high spirits dwindle as they get gobbled up by politics and egos.

Unfortunately, when it comes down to actually changing things, many clients seem to mention the same barriers over and over again. Most, if not all of these aren't complex strategic issues but come down to simple human behaviour. These are the complaints and barriers I hear the most. Any ring a bell?

  • hierarchy
  • egos (normally male egos)
  • greed
  • politics
  • hidden agendas
  • secrecy
  • competition
  • bureaucracy
  • silos

Don’t worry, that powerless feeling might actually turn out to be the solution

What do these have barriers in common? Where might these problems come from? For me it’s simple: Power. None of the points above would exist if people didn’t need power. If human beings didn't need power there would be no need for hierarchy, secrecy, politics. Trust would replace bureaucracy, sharing would replace silos, collaboration would replace competition. Without power, there would be none of the above. But whilst you may already associate negative connotations with the word ‘Power’, I’m sure you view the word ‘Empowerment’ more kindly. It is often viewed as worthy and whilst I don’t question the intention behind this, I do question the logic. I think we might be fighting fire with fire here.


Let’s break the myth of empowerment by first disempowering the few

If power is the root cause to these common barriers, I think empowerment could be the modern myth we need to reframe if organisations are to evolve. To create more equal businesses which harness their collective intelligence, I’d like to propose we start off by diluting the power of those who have too much of it. As Ricardo Semler said: “If you’re giving back, you took too much.” So, what I’d like to talk about here is actually making more people feel powerless. What I’d like to do is introduce the notion of disempowerment.

In this Part 1 post, I will share some perspectives which may point towards how we could make this happen. In February, this will be followed by a 2nd Part which will include some very hands-on tips as to how we might go about doing it (I’ll make sure I include actual guides, tools and resources).

Forget fighting fire with fire

I believe that the logic of empowerment is symptomatic of an age where the mind was disproportionately rewarded in comparison to its more talented sibling: wisdom. Fighting power with power can't be wise, as it compounds the same vicious cycle. In fact, fighting isn’t wise, yet much business rhetoric borrows analogies from military strategy. In Empty Boat, kooky Easter philosopher Osho shared this inspiration from ancient Chinese mystic Chuang Tzu. In his parable of the Empty Boat, Chuang Tzu offers us an analogy which I interpret to diffuse rather than encourage power play and egoic behaviour. It goes as follows:

“If a man is crossing a river And an empty boat collides with his own skiff, Even though he be a bad-tempered man He will not become very angry. But if he sees a man in the boat, He will shout to him to steer clear. And if the shout is not heard he will shout Again, and yet again, and begin cursing - And all because there is somebody in that boat. Yet if the boat were empty, He would not be shouting, and he would not be angry."

This is essentially a conversation about equality. Openness and equality.

Chuang Tzu didn’t ask for louder voices, bigger boats or longer paddles. Similarly, I don’t think we need more empowerment and influence. Or rather, I think we must remember the underlying motivations for empowerment: equality. Rather than focussing only on empowering new people, I believe we need to re-balance our organisations by first of all looking to disempower those who have power to start with. Only this way can we break a contagious and compounding cycle.

Easier said than done, I know. For years our approach to success has been to seek power. Except for inspiring stories of Ricardo Semler (TED talk here) or Jos De Blok (TED talk here) letting go of authority, the age of the ‘Conscious Leader’ seems a way off. Waiting for our leaders to reach enlightenment may not be the best strategy to creating change, but I do think there are some principles which may help. Well actually, there’s only really one: openness. Openness in all senses of the word. Let me break that down a little further (before offering some very practical tips to make this happen in Part 2).

1.Make all information open

The old parable ‘Information is power’ stands true I believe. When one person knows more than another, their behaviour and choices change. Whilst in the days of paper trays that may have been a tricky obstacle, now it is not. Shared servers and collaborative software (e.g. Google Drive) are great levellers and my first tip is to make every piece of work you do, available to anybody and encourage others to do the same. It is difficult to own anything when everything belongs to everybody. WikiLeaks and Snowden are macro-political examples of this and companies like Buffer are showing how this benefits organisations too by making transparency their default.

2.Communicate in open spaces

Carefully managing communication is an old power trick in politics (watch Franck Underwood in House of Cards!). It's the same for organisations. Many in powerful positions - consciously or subconsciously - create independent communication streams to have access to more information and influence than others. Only they have an overview of each stream. A way to negate this is to adopt behaviours in regards to information sharing and communication which break these power-created information paths and distribute information to the many, thus diffusing the power of the few. Technology is an incredible enabler for this as we’ve seen in various macro-political situations. Rather than loads of separate email conversations, open networks such as Slack reduce these silos and allow for more to be known by more people.

3.Open up

I think that if we were to meet our colleagues without knowing each person's job, our relationships would be far more equal. No person is above another. No one human being’s feelings are more valuable than another’s. The notion of hierarchy is a mind made thing. I don’t believe it exists in reality, only according to ego-created mental constructs. Creating a very human work environment where all emotions are welcome has many benefits. We feel safer, when we feel safer we share more, when we share more we share more ideas, ideas are a premise for financial success. So there’s a business logic here. Job titles lose meaning when we meet as people rather than professionals and innovation can only benefit from this.

4.Open the floor to new perspectives

Power closes things down and limits the number of perspectives we get. In a creative economy, this is a dangerous thing. Luckily, we can re-balance power by encouraging and valuing multiple perspectives regardless of status. Often, senior people can take up most of the air time in meetings, or have the final say. Using processes which allow more people to be heard is a wonderful leveler. It also tends to engage teams and results in more and better ideas. Introducing dynamics whereby perspectives replace the appearance of artificial truths is therefore vital.

5.Be open-minded, open to something bigger

A lot of what I’m talking about here is about the ego. A way to cast it into the shadows is to shine a light on something far bigger than ourselves: an idea. Or even better: a purpose. My good friend and colleague Thomas Reibke shared his philosophy with me which has helped me develop stamina when working with difficult change processes. I’ll paraphrase Thomas here, he said like this: ‘Work for an idea, not a company. The idea is just being borrowed by leaders in a company for a temporary period of time. Believing in the company or the people running it isn’t important, but to change things, we have to keep believing in the idea’.

I can’t think of a more exemplary organisation than Patagonia when it comes to this (read this). They regularly take decisions in service of their purpose that may seem against business logic (e.g. investing in organic cotton, or protecting National Parks for no return). Time and time again though, these decisions have delivered business results and forced the competition to follow.

6.Be brave!

As I said earlier, creating change can be tough and whilst openness is an incredible leveller, it can be a scary thing for the ego to take. It can uncover some of our most primitive insecurities. So expect some uncomfortable reactions to your openness. Do what you do with good intentions, care and thought but don’t let yourself be paralysed. It takes bravery, patience and persistence. I’d go as far as saying you may have to be willing to get fired to change something (if you do get fired, you'd probably be happier else anyway). A good example of this is how Erika Baker went to Twitter and an open spreadsheet to call-out pay inequality at Google. By doing so openly I would assume that the excess power of the few may have been diffused.


It’s time to let go of power to enable more people to be powerful

I find the conversation about empowerment an interesting one. We without doubt need to enable more people to be their best, but I fear we may be going about it the wrong way by trying to fix the problem with the problem itself. To put it simply, consider this question: Would the world be safer if: a/ everybody had bombs at their disposal ? b/ nobody had bombs at their disposal ?

I vote for ‘B’. The beauty is that many progressive organisations are using tools and processes which make this a reality. By disempowering the few, we are empowering the many, creating equality and encouraging ideas and potential to be unleashed.

If you are a leader in an organisation, I think the most productive thing you can do is let go and encourage other leaders to do the same. Be open and trust that the people who work with you are smart, talented and have great intentions. Contribute by fostering openness and facilitating the sharing of diverse perspectives. Let others lead the way and make yourself a footnote in the story.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some tools to put these principles for creating change into practice. In the meanwhile though I’d love hear your perspectives. If you have time for a chat, follow me on Instagram or just reach out to me on Skype (my ID is ‘jon.barnes’), Twitter or Linkedin and hopefully we can chat soon.

Until then, be happy.



Jon Barnes works with organisations to develop cultures where innovation and creativity can thrive. He recently published a chapter on Cultivating Creative Culture to the most recent Creative Social book, Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief. He works with organisational & cultural change process for multinational clients such as ITV, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, MEC, TUI PLC and Hotel Beds Group. He also designs and delivers the major in Digital Transformation for [HEC Paris's Exec MBA] (known as the world's 8th best Exec MBA).

Catch part 2 of this blog here