Monday, 17 January 2011

Empowerment - Yeah Right!

“We empower our employees.” The sentiment and intent of this statement reverberates through the air and bounces off walls. Commendable as it may sound, how often it really happens and to what extent is questionable.

This post sets about challenging the hype and supposed rocket science that seems to embody the process of empowering others. When will all leaders be prepared to achieve more by simply getting out of the way?

Empowerment like many other leadership activities is often hindered by the hype and buzz that builds up around such an intangible statement. They somehow become a thing that has to be done rather than something that just is. Maybe employers are scared. Scared because they perceive they’ll lose control, be overtaken by their employees, become redundant.

In my opinion when employers talk about empowerment what they’re really saying is they seek to encourage their staff to think for themselves, to come up with ideas, participate, and generally show initiative within a set of controls and after specific direction. But isn’t that why employees are hired in the first place? Permitting them to do what they’re hired to isn’t empowerment no matter what fancy ribbon or consultant-speak it’s tied up with. Writing about empowerment in his book “The Search for Leadership”, William Tate refers to Henry Mintzberg. He writes and I quote “Henry Mintzberg (1999) offers the view that real empowerment is the most natural state of affairs: people know what they have to do and simply get on with it. If an organisation exhibits real empowerment, it doesn’t need to talk about it.”

Trouble is people usually just hear and experience ‘talk’ and let’s face it talk is easy. Walking that talk is harder and can be complicated by a need for control. If you want a job done properly, do it yourself – right? Well no actually. If that was the case why hire anyone? Think micro-management. It still exists in various forms and when it does empowerment cannot. It’s not possible to empower people when looking over their shoulder all the time. Giving someone specific instructions means they don’t have to turn on any brain cells in order to do what they’re told.

In an organisation where control is king, telling people they’re empowered is contradictory and nonsensical. People aren’t stupid so insulting their intelligence in this way is dis-empowering. They know this type of culture doesn’t permit let alone support empowerment. Any such edict, because that’s what it is, will be met with ‘Yeah right! Like that's going to be possible.’ People need to believe they are empowered otherwise they cannot operate in an empowered way. It doesn’t matter what the talk is, if the perception is one of disbelief they will not feel empowered.

It’s time to stop the talk and make the change; out with control freaks and in with awe-inspiring, respected, intelligent leaders who bring about cultural changes and know that empowerment happens naturally when given half a chance. Leaders can go from good to great on the empowerment scale; they just need to get out of the way.

Great leaders trust their people and their people trust them. They can set the scene, describe the challenge, and share any information that gives context or builds understanding. People need to be aware of any other agendas, expectations or objectives too. Real empowerment will not happen if there’s a perception of prescribed or predetermined outcomes.

All leaders regardless of their position of power are responsible for and have a responsibility to empower others. Like many characteristics of a great leader, empowerment isn’t rocket science. It just is so let it be.


  1. All it takes is a little courage and commitment from leaders to make themselves redundant asap. :-)

  2. Hi John

    Thanks for the comment. You're absolutely right. Without courageous committed leaders people will never believe they can do anything.


  3. Awesome! This is true to it's core.

    The manager that came to me and said, "we need to get this done" and then said "I don't have a clue how to do it and I need your help", has forever been my favorite boss. I would have followed the guy into war...

  4. I agree that telling people they’re empowered is contradictory and nonsensical. It's not what the Leaders say but what they do that really tells the story. Great post!

  5. Jeff
    Your example of why people follow certain leaders is excellent. It absolutely reflects the aptitude of great leaders.
    Thanks for your comment. Deanne

  6. Thanks Lynne. Really appreciate you taking the time to comment on this post. You're right - Leaders need to walk the talk and I'd add with integrity at all times. There's a post on this back in the archives if you're interested in reading that one too.