Anxiety. Depression. A search of these two words returns millions of articles that explore the rapid and persistent increase of these conditions over the last 80 years. No one is quite sure why, there have been studies, research, and theories, but no clear conclusions. The post-WWII world is different; what we take for granted today didn’t exist in 1940. Many advancements have increased efficiency; with each new gain in efficiency the pace of change is increased, the pace and speed of everything is increased; that may be one reason for increased anxiety.
Another source of our society’s increasing sense of general anxiety is directly related to lack of control or un-empowerment. We have lots of “stuff” and “things” that we are responsible for, but in many cases, we lack the authority to make decisions, to fix problems. Since the 1980’s many companies have become more centralized; authority and decision-making power is held by fewer people, but at the same time the expectation of responsibility has increased. Authority has been limited while responsibility has increased. We have reduced empowerment and increased the repercussions.
It is clear that empowerment often leads to higher quality. Japanese manufacturing practices, developed in the 1970’s, deployed worker empowerment and revolutionized the auto industry, establishing Japan as a major player in the industry. Central to their process was the term “Andon”; a system that notified workers and managers of quality problems. Any worker could stop the assembly line if they saw a problem; control and empowerment created higher quality, lower costs, and a market position that is still strong more than four decades later.
Have you ever received information that caused you to freeze, that created a sinking feeling in your stomach, that increased your heart rate, made you feel a little nauseous, a little anxious? When there was literally nothing you could DO? You were presented with a problem that was yours to correct, but you had no ability to fix it. Stress? Anxiety? Frustration?
Some people prefer to take direction and are perfectly happy letting others make decisions. There may be a sense of security in not being responsible. Others feel a deep need to be responsible, to help; a responsibility to lead, it’s just there, you can’t help it.
Empowerment is the antidote for anxiety when responsibility is required. Knowing you have the ability to fix, that you are empowered to decide, that there are clear guidelines you can follow, having a clear set of boundaries and how you can work within them, are when clarity and empowerment make the difference. Clarity and empowerment turn anxiety into confidence, into competence. We need to ensure that authority increases at the same rate responsibility increases. We need to deploy empowerment to create higher quality results.
When people turn to us for answers, and we don’t have the ability to give them clear direction, not only do we feel anxious, it also creates anxiety for them. A few months ago I had a sudden realization that I was creating or increasing anxiety for others. It was unintentional and born of a deep desire to be fully transparent, to not mislead. It went something like this, “we are going to have to create 25 widgets by the end of the month, I think.” Those two words, “I think” were Kryptonite.
People want certainty from their leaders, now more than ever. People need empowerment for certainty.