The Real Cause of Empowerment – Chemistry

In 2010 I’ve been flying with my colleague from our international leadership team meeting. We started to chat and she told me the story about her daughter studying in Switzerland far from home being in situation on her own. She found the apartment with other 4 students that were quite diverse set of individuals by gender and nationality. After the initial period of adjustment, there was supposed to be some order in the apartment regarding the facility sharing, cleaning, cooking etc. Quite interesting setup they made for cooking. It was like this:

– Every day other person cooks (roles are shared)
– They agreed upon a menu that week (delivered product)
– Every Sunday they make a list of supplies for cooking that week (product backlog – planning meeting)
– They have made some analysis and decided to buy a large amount of supplies to get discount and also delivery directly to home (improvement, optimize the whole)
– A meal should be liked by everyone (daily retrospective)
– Improvements in cooking skills over time have improved (continuous learning and improvement)

They have no “managers” (like mom and dad), they have no steering and they are the customers creating requirements and customer consuming the product. What a nice loop and example of a self-organized agile team.

EmpoweredBeing part of management I was once introduced with the term “empowerment within borders“. If we think a bit deeper about it and its origin, it discloses the message to preserve the decision making, authority and structures… (and positions). It tells that borders are clear and determined, there are rules and people shall know them and follow. Those borders can be easily narrowed if something bad happens, or eventually widened if something very good happens. To my humble notice, it is the same like saying – please think ‘out of the box‘ within this box.

If we consider it in terms of innovations that come (exclusively) from people’s creativity and thinking – we expect from our organization and people to generate ideas, to think of new business models and add on a value for services and products. So we say – please do it – and by the way, here are your borders…

Recent research indicates some interesting results. In some animal species like apes, there is a hierarchy starting from the alpha male having the biggest power in the community. Results show that this power is connected to the two hormones: testosterone and cortisol. While the former is responsible for reduced fear, willingness to compete and take risks, the last is connected to the level of stress. Alpha males were having high testosterone and low cortisol level, while other males that were lower in the hierarchy were showing a higher level of cortisol and reduced testosterone.

If we assume, as researchers suggest, that those results are equivalent to the humans’, we may bluntly conclude that dis-empowered employees do have a higher cortisol level, thus exposed to the unnecessary level of stress.

Sending them to courses like “how to handle stress” or similar is then a short term measure and a fairly wasted investment if we don’t remove the real cause of their hormone dis-balance.
Who would imagine that leaders are actually biochemists!

You may also want to take a look at the following posts:

Empirical People Control
Are You Trying to Tell Me I Should Serve


4 thoughts on “The Real Cause of Empowerment – Chemistry

  • Pingback: Let’s Call Ourselves – The Team; Even Better – The Agile Team | Agile Alphabet

  • May 31, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    Interesting point :-)

    I do believe that behavior of most people has roots in biochemistry and that majority of us are very conditioned by hormonal dynamics (although ready to fight-to-death to defend our liberty to exhibit free will :-)). We are too dependent on it. So, getting freedom is one of the most important and most profound goals we could ever set in front of us. And helping others getting their freedom!
    Now, I see one challenge there: if we remove (mental?) box boundaries, will people (suddenly being exposed to wider space) get more cortisol (fear: oh my god, will I make it, please give me my boundaries back) or more testosteron (finally, freeeedom, now it’s my turn)? It probably depends on the individual – are they ready for it or not.

    Now, back to SW development eco-system: boundaries shouldn’t exist. But, if they do exist, especially for a long time already, then in my opinion removing boundaries should be in a way to enable organic growth – so that testosteron levels grow with keeping cortisol at just right level to keep visible sense of urgency, but not higher.

    “Empowerment within borders” also sounds disrespectful to me, it implies “we don’t trust our people”. However, my view is that we should enable environment where our people/teams will “pull the level of freedom they are ready for” and will get support for the remaining part. While growing in time, their “freedom zone” should be expanded. The role of leaders would be then to dynamically sense it and adapt their leadership styles and influence organisational culture accordingly.


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