The Empowered Manager by Peter Block

The Blurb On The Back:

When the first edition of this book was published, the United States was in a time of recession, financial crises and growing unemployment.  Sound familiar?  Many companies rose to acclaimed success from these conditions by improving the quality of their products and services by shifting control from top management to employees closer to the work.  This revised and updated edition of The Empowered Manager casts fresh eyes on the theory and practice of optimizing the human system in your organisation in the context of how today’s businesses are changing at the speed of technological innovation.

Business has changed a lot in thirty years, but the philosophies and practices managers use to lead teams are still stuck in a patriarchal mindset.  This brilliantly reimagined Second Edition is for everyone who wants to be a force for change and improvement in a stagnant workplace culture where safety, advancement, control, and the desire to hold someone else responsible is forefront on people’s minds.  The potent blend of theory and actionable practices provides a clear path for embracing the technology eliminating the tedious tasks from employees’ job descriptions and empowering them with the abilities to better serve customers. Whether you’re a manager or an employee, the inspiring guidance inside lets you step out of the negative office politics fuelling the status quo and gives you the skills to act with autonomy and compassion in service of a vision in order to “own” the performance of your team.

Bring out the entrepreneurial spirit in your entire team and get them invested and excited about the work by:

  • creating a unit that exemplifies your deepest personal beliefs about your employees and the organisation and puts in place the systems to make it a reality
  • developing high-integrity strategies for neutralising adversaries, motivating fence sitters and focusing mostly on allies
  • mastering practical tips for aligning your vision with everyday practice, including how to handle meetings, restructure teams, and manage communications.

The Empowered Manager, Second Edition gives you a clear path to becoming the leader your organisation needs to positively impact performance, build accountability and enhance job satisfaction for everyone – including top management. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Peter Block is an organization development consultant and founder of Designed Learning (a consulting training services provider).  In this fascinating book he examines the characteristics of patriarchal organisations and negative politics and how they disempower and demotivate employees and explains how to use more entrepreneurial ways of working so that workers have more control of their work and take more responsibility.

The book is divided into two parts – the first looks at politics in the workplace and ways of rekindling the entrepreneurial spirit and the second advises on positive political skills at work.

For me, the first part is more interesting than the first because I think it’s a neatly executed dissection of traditional office power structures and politics – especially the bureaucratic, patriarchal models and the behaviour that they encourage and reinforce, e.g. maintenance, caution and dependency.  Having worked for numerous large organisations, I have to say that I recognised an awful lot in what Block points out here about top-down, high control management where success is defined as moving up the ladder and employees engage in manipulative behaviour to those above and below the to create dependency.

The section where he talks about how people don’t talk about feelings in this type of organisation because the focus is on just getting the job done especially resonated with me, as did the section where he talks about how sacrifice is encouraged for vague future rewards that then fail to materialise.  Being honest, I also have to say how much I recognised in myself the behaviour types such as focusing on financial rewards and seeking approval of performance and how I instinctively moved towards safety.  Block is also good at recognising how even when you’re at the top you’re still powerless in organisations like this as there are shareholders who you have to please.

Much of what he says about characteristics of entrepreneurial structures and empowerment are common sense, e.g. being straight with employees when communicating with them (whether it’s about cuts or career progression) but I thought he made good practical points about pancake structures and practical steps to ensure that supervisors/managers aren’t given an opportunity to micro-manage so as to delegate decision making further down.  I also think he makes sensible points about how not everyone will be up for changes aimed at empowering people while making suggestions for how to structure things like meetings and task assignment to encourage employees to take more control (e.g. by having employees initiate and lead staff meetings or expressing tasks in broad terms and having employees explain what support they need to achieve them).

The second section about positive political skills at works wasn’t quite as successful for me, mainly because it really focuses on establishing and enacting visions of greatness, which is just one of those management-speak things that sets my teeth on edge.  That’s not because I don’t think people should try to do the best they can but because they so often get caught up in grandiose language and because I’m not convinced people need a vision in order to work hard to achieve something.  Also, although Block addresses the fact that some people will not have a vision, his “solution” is to ask them to suppose they do and then describe it, which I think is a bit circular although he does give more interesting advice later in terms of focusing on customers and what they want and forgetting about being number one he also tells you not to be practical because it will restrain your vision and that just cuts against my grain.

The chapters where he talks about ways to identify allies, fence sitters, bedfellows and opponents are more useful in terms of strategies for dealing with the same, facing reality, being honest and authentic about our own contribution to problems.  Again, there’s a lot of common sense here and Block did succeed in making me re-evaluate my own approach and behaviours.

I should say that this is a very US-centric book (as a lot of management/leadership books tend to be) and that influences some of the analysis (notably with regard to the fear of being let go given the looser termination regime there) but there’s enough practical advice here to also apply to UK organisations.

Ultimately I think there was a lot here that was useful and which I recognised from my own experience in working for large organisations and as such, I think it’s worth a look if you want to take a critical look at your company and what you can do to improve things.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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