Power to your people: How to create a culture of empowerment

How to abandon hierarchical leadership and create a culture of empowerment across your workplace in 2020 and beyond


The charity sector has a complicated relationship with power. In many respects, the sector depends on it. Power is required to make things happen: to campaign, to influence, to fundraise and to have an impact. But too much power – particularly when it is being held in the wrong places – can contradict everything charities seek to achieve.

This year, accusations of workplace bullying among charities have been rife. Some of the UK’s most-loved charities have been reported to have toxic cultures, whereby an unequal spreading of power has resulted in low staff morale and friction between senior leaders and the rest of the workforce.

In May 2019, Amnesty International was accused of harbouring this kind of culture, which staff claimed comprised of ‘secrecy and mistrust’. The claims were revealed as part of a review into the organisation, which resulted in the redundancies of the majority of the charity’s senior leadership team.

A few months later, senior management at Alzheimer’s Society came under fire after anonymous employees set up a Twitter page to share “significant concerns about the charity’s leadership”. The page, which has since been taken down, was met with mixed feedback from others in the sector – with many claiming the page was a form of bullying in itself – but the organisation said it is “committed to a fair, open and respectful working environment” and would be investigating the complaints further.

More recently, issues surrounding pay at the RSPCA have paved way to another wave of concerns about workplace culture. A staff engagement survey released in the summer revealed 31 per cent of employees said they had been bullied directly or witnessed this kind of behaviour.

“Leaders cannot be at their best and cannot create the biggest impact if they are working in a toxic culture,” Kristiana Wrixon, head of policy at ACEVO, explains. “Nor do we want to see leaders who appear to create a big difference but do so in a culture of stress or fear.”

“Bullying can happen in any workplace but we believe that civil society should be taking the lead on tackling workplace bullying and creating inclusive and supportive cultures. As well as being positive for staff and volunteers, inclusive cultures that have a focus on wellbeing are more productive and innovative, so taking action is good for our workers, our volunteers, our organisations and most importantly the people and causes we serve,” Wrixon adds.

Abandoning the hierarchical model

So, how can chief executives, trustees and other managers lead on creating more empowering cultures for their employees? Wrixon suggests abandoning the “hierarchical model of command and control style leadership” is a good place to start. “[This style of leadership] is increasingly being rejected in favour of leadership that focuses on supporting and enabling the team to achieve great things together,” she explains.

“At ACEVO we believe in leadership that is based on relationships, connections, authenticity, growth, commitment and the desire to improve. It comes from the head and the heart. These are the characteristics that create leaders, not organisational figureheads, and it is leaders that will create safe workplace cultures.”

Empowering employees to be leaders in their own right and spreading power across the organisation has proven success rates. Many studies already show that employee engagement impacts the success of organisations, and in no sector is this more true than the charity sector, where passion and drive are essential to delivering services (often for less money).

Unsurprisingly, a report, published by Salesforce found employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best at work. Part of this is about inclusivity, too. The report revealed organisations with greater gender and ethnic diversity consistently outperform their less diverse competitors as they incorporate a far broader range of perspectives at decision-making level.

Kennedy Odede, the founder of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) – charity empowering communities to facilitate citizen-led change in Africa’s largest slum, Kibera – says he believes everyone should feel like a leader within their own organisation.

“I have always found the way to get the best out of someone is to recognise the value of their contributions and encourage them to develop their skills and capacities over time. I don’t believe in ‘followers’, I believe every position in an organisation should have some quality of leadership,” he explains.

“At SHOFCO, we believe in empowering everyone to feel like a leader, rather than a follower, so they know they can make a difference in their community and beyond – but they have to have the good of the organisation and the community at the heart of everything they do.”

Hierarchical leadership can, in some cases, breed egotism. And so instead of making leadership a challenge to aim towards, it should be promoted as a skill, Dr Simon Hayward, author of The Agile Leader and Connected Leadership, suggests.

“If we look at the organisations that are succeeding in our fastmoving and unpredictable world, they tend to have quite a ‘connected’ style of leadership. Rather than relying on leaders at the top, they devolve decision making to the people closest to the beneficiary.

“Devolved decision making is fundamentally about enabling decisions to be made closer to the beneficiary,” he adds. “This gives frontline employees the flexibility and freedom to operate, confident that what they are doing is in line with the organisation’s strategy and values.”

Too many cooks?

But despite its obvious engagement benefits, devolving too much power can come with risks, too. At the British Exploring Society, a charity dedicated to providing young people with experiences of self-discovery in the wilderness, the charity’s CEO, Honor Wilson-Fletcher explains how ‘power’ means different things to different people.

“‘Being heard’, ‘having opportunities’, ‘being able to challenge equally’, ‘having the chance to drive or enact change’, ‘independence’ when you choose to share everything – are all different definitions. You need to think carefully about listening/ communication, too,” she says.

“[Leadership] can lead to the potential for lots of uplifting conversations, but potentially fewer effective processes. A race-for-thetop I suppose – more honesty and more challenge on the days when what you really want is business as usual. Challenge doesn’t always arrive when you are feeling buoyant and forward-thinking.”

Handing over some control isn’t always easy, either. This is especially true in smaller charities where time and resources are tight and devolving power to new starters or those with less experience in taking on bigger responsibilities can feel like a daunting task.

“It takes time and persistence to create the environment where people are confident to take on the increased responsibility,” Hayward notes. “The tension is obvious: while leaders may recognise the value in principle of leading an organisation which operates with an empowered culture, where people are able to do what’s best for the customers within the framework of the direction, purpose and values, their preference is often for decisions to be mandated from the top to ensure control and the assurance of consistency of execution.”

“Not everyone will enjoy the experience of devolved power equally,” the British Society’s Wilson-Fletcher adds, “and teams will need to look after each other and ensure that those who seek certainty, stability, structure and clear hierarchies get what they need too.”

Putting ideas into action

So how do leaders, especially those who are used to hierarchical leadership styles, even begin to think about actioning the devolution of power? SHOFCO’s Odede’s advises implementing subtle processes that allow staff to ‘create their own stretch goals and objectives based on what they are most passionate about, where there are opportunities in line with the organisation’s mission’.

But the key is to implement these measures in an authentic way, he adds. Leaders can also look to create more flexible frameworks for working, such as remote working, allowing people to work within the timeframes that are most convenient to their lifestyles.

A recent report by automation company Zapier found 95% of knowledge works remotely and that 26% of people had already quit jobs to work for employers who were offering more flexible hours and a better work/life balance.

“To put it simply, if you have a talented, valuable workforce, you’d be mad not to [enable remote working],” Nigel Davies, founder of digital workplace Claromentis says.

“Flexible working, which includes working remotely, hands power to the employee to do their best work around other responsibilities, be they to children, family members that need care, or their own physical and mental health.

“Every person’s life is unique, so why shouldn’t their working hours be tailored specifically to their needs? You can still reasonably request that people be available for core hours, but focus on output rather than hours worked, and you’ll get far more out of your people.”

Giving more power back to your employees will be one of the most essential tools for creating happier workforces in the year ahead. “You cannot hope to achieve empowerment and to become more agile without devolving power,” Dr Hayward says.
“If you, as a leader, can push decisions back to the people on the front line, and coach and support these people so that they make decisions in a way that supports your goals, then you will have kickstarted a more empowered approach and given yourself more time to concentrate on the decisions only you can make.

“As well as devolving decision-making responsibility, ‘connected’ leaders encourage a culture of collaboration and teamwork. They stimulate a high degree of empowerment and trust that each person and team will perform to the best of their ability.”

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