It’s all about relationships and empowerment. No, really, it is!

Last week saw the launch of Tomorrow’s Relationships, a challenging piece of research led by Tomorrow’s Company in partnership with CIPD, CIMA, Linkaters and KPMG. The report argues that relationships lie at the heart of business, yet we don’t pay enough attention to how we understand, develop, manage and assess them. It also argues that this is possible and provides practical toolkits to help.

This week, I came across this April article from BBC News’ CEO Guru series. It’s about Whole Foods Market, a retailer with 80,000 staff in the US, Canada and the UK. As I see it, the company’s management philosophy is essentially twofold: build strong employee and workplace relationships, and empower employees to take wider responsibility.

Ah, that word, empowerment. A word overused, misused and probably meaningless more often than not. It immediately makes me think of the Dilbert cartoons. Employees being forced to wear badges that say ‘I’m empowered’, or being ordered to do pointless work and finding ‘empowerment’ in choosing the font for the report. Or more realistically, and worse, being ‘empowered’ to run an additional project with no extra resource. Empowered to run yourself ragged.

For all that, it’s still a word I believe in wholeheartedly. We buy into objectives more when we play an active role in setting them. We work better when we can control how we go about our work. We feel more engaged with our organisations when there’s a culture of permission, such that we can not only make suggestions but experiment with initiatives ourselves. This is empowerment. It brings together choice and taking responsibility in a way that’s very close to existentialist notions of authenticity.

What strikes me in this account of Whole Foods is that its form of empowerment works because it’s based on a foundation of strong relationships. This includes how people are managed – for example, making them feel their contributions are valued – but also includes relationship building as an end in itself. Sleepovers and sharing breakfast, for example.

“Would you feel uncomfortable chatting to your boss in your pyjamas?” the journalist asks the reader. Maybe not. And if a sleepover would be artificially chummy and infringe the boundaries of your relationship, well ... don’t.

All relationships have boundaries. What it takes to strengthen one may severely test another. The case of Whole Foods does not mean we should all be following suit with sleepovers etc. But it does illustrate that relationships come first, business second.

I think Tomorrow's Relationships is an important piece of work and it was a pleasure to be involved. A stakeholder view has been a central tenet of business ethics and sustainability for some time. The work builds on this view, drawing attention not just to convergent interests of stakeholders, but to different parties as individual actors. To the living, breathing relationships that exist between them.

We can and should take a systematic approach to relationships in business, including of course employment relationships. Does your organisation consider how its relationships create value; tune into and support them as necessary; assess their health; ensure they are characterised by mutual respect?


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  • What is behind the headlines is not the method... but the purpose

    If you are doing these things for "empowerment" - you lose, it is seen for what it is... artificial

    If on the other hand, these things are done because they are genuinely aligned to the values of the business, then big things happen

    it’s not the action that is important (but that is often copied), but the intent