Netflix’s former head of talent explains why she hates jargon like “empowerment”

“Empowerment” at work seems to have little relationship to power. Why not just say what we mean?
“Empowerment” at work seems to have little relationship to power. Why not just say what we mean?
Image: Action Images / Andrew Couldridge
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The “best practices” of management—bonuses and pay tied to annual performance reviews; big HR initiatives; silly celebrations to build camaraderie; and, for employees who are struggling, performance improvement plans—are all based on the idea that “empowering people” leads to job satisfaction and employee happiness, and that leads to high performance. The truth is that “empowerment,” and appealing corporate jargon like it, are more than annoying. These terms are harmful, because they either mask the truth or are badly misleading.

The command-and-control system most companies still cling to is, in fact, dis-empowering. We talk so much about empowering people because all of our policies and procedures have taken so much of their power away. When I was at Netflix, we decided to do away with all of these procedures, and we found that liberating people allowed them to show us just how powerful they were. This was more effective than “empowerment.”

Almost as bad as “empowerment,” is the phrase “performance improvement plan.” I’m sure at the start, the term was intended to mean what it says. But let’s be honest: Along the way, PIPs became all about proving someone is incompetent. That’s just cruel, both to employees and to managers, as well as costly. It takes a toll on people’s psyches and on a team’s productivity. Often the problem isn’t even that a person is not a high performer, or that he or she doesn’t have the potential to be a high performer in another job at another company. He or she might be fabulous, but not right for the job you need done, either now or in the future. If we think this way about when it’s time move on, rather than calling it “performance improvement,” we can have a more honest conversation with people that’s not about casting aspersions on them, but about aligning skills with team objectives.

On to the “well-meaning but misguided” category. Let’s start with “engagement” and “work family.” No one puts a ring on your finger when you join a company. And the focus on engagement implies that lots of people are not committed to their work. My experience is that most people are. The real problem is that the standard beliefs about how and why people are engaged in their work miss the true drivers of work passion, and most efforts to “engage” people—the craft beer, the swings, the twenty kinds of water—take the place of delving more deeply into management problems or skills fit. What’s more, too often engagement is treated as the endgame, rather than a tool with which to serve customers and get results. Those are the things most employees find truly motivating.

As for family, I once asked a room full of HR people, “How many of you have laid anybody off?” Everybody’s hand went up. Then I asked, “Okay, how many of you have laid off a family member?” Zero hands. “And yet,” I said, “how many of you use the word ‘family’ at work every day?” At Netflix, we decided to use the metaphor of a sports team, not a family. Just as great coaches are constantly scouting for new players and culling others from their lineups, our team leaders would need to continually look for talent and reconfigure team makeup. All managers should, and all employees should be prepared for making moves. This is the business world we’re really living in.

Finally, there is the beguiling “career path.”  At Netflix, I had employees come to me all the time and ask what path they should be on. I would tell them, I can give you a topographical map and say you are here and give you a general description of the surrounding area. I can put you in touch with someone who made it across this range and through that valley. But I can’t tell you a path to follow because I honestly don’t know where we, and the rest of the business world, are heading. None of us can rely on well-worn paths these days, and the best advice is to expect to chart one’s own unique course, step by uncertain step.

I will confess; I was once a master of this jargon. But I was lucky. I started working closely with engineers at Netflix, and they’re different from most people. They’re all about precision, and they want to know what you’re actually saying. So I lost the HR speak and I found that my communication was much more effective.

Here is my proposition: Why don’t we all use words that explain what we’re truly thinking and doing. Why don’t we practice radical honesty? People don’t want to be lied to and spun; they want to know what they need to know.

Patty McCord is the former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix and the author Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility.