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The Empowerment Vacuum: How Companies Suck the Life Out of Their Employees

I was sitting across from my latest client, a middle-aged executive with a pained expression etched across her face. She had come to me for advice on how to get her team to be more productive and engaged, and had already done everything to ’empower’ her team in an attempt to promote a more collaborative work environment. But even with great intentions, poor execution still determines the result.

Despite her best efforts, her team were now less productive than before she ’empowered’ them. As she spoke, I began to realise that in her attempts to empower and support, this company was now suffering from the all-too-common “empowerment vacuum.”

The thing that hurts the most about the empowerment vacuum is, it only really happens to businesses that are trying to do the right thing by their employees. But just because you try to do the right thing, doesn’t mean you get it right. And empowerment is a tricky thing that has been oversimplified over the past few years to a point of comfy break rooms and agile project plans. That ain’t going to work, but there are things that do.

“So, tell me what you’ve done so far?” I asked her, my fingers posed above my keyboard ready to take notes.

“We’ve given our employees more freedom and decision-making power, but it’s just overwhelming them,” she said. “They’re getting paralysed by all the choices and responsibilities. And it’s sucking the life out of them.”

I nodded, and typed away. This was a familiar story. Companies were so eager to promote empowerment and autonomy that they forget to provide the guidance and support necessary to make it work. The result was often overwhelmed, stressed-out employees who were unable to perform at their best. Instead of creating an environment that allowed people to be their best, it was sucking the life out of them. Good intentions. Bad execution.

As a neuroscientist, I know that this problem has its roots in the cognitive limits of the brain. Humans have a finite capacity for processing information and making decisions. When employees are given too much autonomy without sufficient guidance or support, they may become overwhelmed and unable to make effective decisions. It’s like trying to drink from a firehose – eventually, you just get drenched and can’t drink anymore.

But the problem is more than just cognitive. Chronic stress has significant negative effects on physical and mental health. When we empower employees it can lead to those employees being constantly bombarded with new information, conflicting priorities, and unrealistic expectations, it can trigger the body’s stress response and lead to a range of negative health outcomes, such as high blood pressure, impaired immune function, and depression.

And then there’s the importance of social support. Humans are social creatures, and social support is critical for maintaining mental and emotional wellbeing. When companies prioritise individual achievement or empowerment over collaboration and social support, it can create a toxic work environment that undermines employee morale, satisfaction, and performance. The very thing that companies use to try and bring people together, ends up tearing them apart. On the flip side, companies that foster a sense of community and provide employees with meaningful social connections are more likely to promote employee empowerment in a healthy and sustainable way. Good intentions. Good execution.

But as I looked across the table at my client, I saw that she was already well aware of these issues. The real problem was how to address them in a meaningful way. How could she promote empowerment without overwhelming her employees? How could she create a collaborative work environment without sacrificing individual achievement? How could she provide social support without creating a culture of dependency?

I took a deep breath and began to sketch out a plan. It would require a shift in thinking for her and for her team. A new approach to leadership and culture that emphasised guidance and support over control and domination. It would require a willingness to listen to employees and work with them to create a culture that promoted empowerment and collaboration. It would require a recognition that social support was not a luxury, but a necessity for promoting mental and emotional wellbeing. And a recognition that we’re in this together, and empowerment shouldn’t create silos.

As I spoke, my client’s expression began to soften. She leaned forward, nodding eagerly. She got it. It was like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. And I realised, with a sense of satisfaction, that this was why I loved my job. Helping people find new ways of thinking and approaching problems was like a drug – addictive, exhilarating, and immensely satisfying.

But as I left her office, I couldn’t help but think about all the other companies out there, struggling with the same issues. The empowerment vacuum was a pervasive problem. And worse, it was usually one that affected those who are trying to do the right thing by their team. One that could only be solved with a new approach to leadership and a commitment to creating a healthy, collaborative work environment. It’s not easy, but it is possible. And that’s enough to keep me optimistic.

So here’s to the visionaries, the leaders, and the managers who are willing to take a risk and embrace a new way of thinking. Here’s to the companies that prioritise and support true employee empowerment, collaboration, and social support. Here’s to the future, where companies and employees alike can thrive in a healthy, sustainable work environment. It won’t be easy, but as I saw in my client’s eyes, the rewards are more than worth it.

Until next time keep exploring, keep questioning and keep that prefrontal cortex firing.

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