Leadership : Empowerment: what it is and what it is not

JoanJoan runs her own consultancy in Oceanside, California. She can be contacted via JPAjoan@aol.com or JPAtya@cox.net.  Joan's web site is at http://www.jpa-international.com/.

Empowerment in Organizations Volume 4 * Number 2 * 1996 * pp. 5-7 Copyright MCB University Press * ISSN 0968-4891     


Discusses empowerment in terms of common misunderstandings. Everybody talks about empowerment these days and many company leaders claim to be practising it, but there are a great number of managers - and employees - who do not really understand what empowerment involves. As a result, many problems have arisen as confusion over decision-making authority and access to information reigns supreme. Lays out in a straightforward manner what empowerment is, common misconceptions around it, and a process for increasing the chances that employees will be successfully empowered      


We hear the word empowerment being bantered around, thrown back and forth between people and yet there seem to be numerous definitions of just what empowerment actually is. The best way to define empowerment is to consider it as part of a process or an evolution - an evolution that goes on whenever you have two or more people in a relationship, personally or professionally.

There are two aspects of empowerment we must address to understand the concept fully. The first is personal empowerment, i.e. that which individuals are responsible for doing for themselves in order to feel empowered in their lives regardless of circumstances. The second dimension of empowerment has to do with the way in which we work with others to nurture their sense of self-esteem, autonomy and growth.

Let us talk briefly about each. In personal empowerment, one develops the ability to change one's behavior, when appropriate, in response to new situations, and to be accountable for one's own actions and decisions in life. Mark Samuel, founder of Impaq Organizational Systems, describes how people demonstrate accountability for their behavior. This takes the form of questions people ask themselves when situations occur that they might find difficult to accept or adjust to.

The questions the empowered and accountable person asks is: "How did I create, promote or allow this situation to occur?" This is an appropriate question in terms of taking both personal and professional responsibility, the first step in the process of empowerment.

In the work place, hierarchies of responsibility and power are expected to exist, and they certainly do. One of the most common misconceptions I see when I talk to managers about empowerment is their belief that to empower means letting their employees or "team" loose on a project, meaning that they are now "empowered" to go do whatever it is that they are supposed to do.

I liken the situation to an "anointing". It is like the king who takes his sword, lays it on the knight errant's shoulder and tells him he is now empowered to lead the crusade, to sally forth into the realm and just "Do it!" - whatever "it" is.

Of course, the biggest problem that occurs with giving people authority and responsibility without any preparation and training is that, invariably, people will make decisions based on a very limited perceptive. When they bring their decision back to the "king", the king gets upset and shouts "halt", and promptly revokes the knight's decision, and often the knighthood.

All it takes is for this to happen once or twice for people to experience bile rising in their throats whenever the word "empowerment" is mentioned. The rallying cry is hardly "Long live the King!" It is more like "Off with his (or her) head!"

Empowerment in the work place must integrate key aspects of personal empowerment, responsibility, accountability and shared risk taking.

Empowerment is not a static "event", but rather a dynamic evolutionary process in which the manager, employee and team are all involved. 


There are five distinct levels or stages of autonomy and empowerment in which a team and its manager operate.      

Stage one

At stage one, the manager makes the decisions and informs the team. This may seem basic and obvious but, all too often, managers operate on a pre-stage one level - they make their decisions and do not bother to inform the team.      

Stage two 

Here the manager asks the team for suggestions, makes the decisions based on those suggestions and informs the team.      

Stage three 

The manager and the team discuss the situation at length, management asks for proposals and input from the team (which may or may not be adopted), makes the decisions and informs the team.      

Stage four 

This stage continues building on this relationship and, at this point, the decisions are made co-operatively between management and the team.      

Stage five 

In stage five, the manager delegates the decision making to the team. The team operates completely autonomously, making crucial decisions of which they may or may not, at their discretion, inform management.      


Now, let us go back and take a look at the five levels. Some people would say that the first stage should not be included, that the manager is simply informing people of his decision. But actual autonomy and empowerment have nothing to do with being in the fourth or fifth stages. In fact, the stage a manager is in, in terms of evolving his or her team, is not nearly as important as communicating to the team at which stage they will be working at in regard to any given situation.

Fundamentally, autonomy and empowerment in the work place are driven by communication between manager and team, so as to determine the optimal stage in which they should operate.

To illustrate my point, I was teaching a senior management group when a manager with good intentions related his empowerment story. He had "heard" about empowerment (although he had no formal training) and had "anointed" his team to analyze procedures and make recommendations for streamlining and improving processes within the department. They all worked furiously and diligently as a team until they finally arrived at what they felt were the ultimate beneficial solutions. He nearly keeled over when presented with the "revelations" of this poor, misguided group. He was forced to deny nearly all of their recommendations. Why? The group had not taken into account any of their customers' needs or customer service. They had made all their recommendations without considering their customers at all!

The group was under the impression that they were operating autonomously (stage five) and their recommendations would be summarily implemented. Presentation to their director was only a formality. Unfortunately for the group and the manager, he was stuck with making the final decision and informing the team (stage three). When a mismatch of stages between manager and team occurs, conflict, fear, disillusionment and anger arise from the team members. Now, when this manager wants his group to make recommendations for another problem or situation, they will naturally be more hesitant and conservative.

The moral of this true story is this; you cannot let your group loose until it has been thoroughly trained to consider all the necessary factors in the situation it has been given. You must learn the evolution of autonomy and empowerment by understanding the nature of the process and the stages of its development.

We have discussed empowerment on a personal basis and in the work place. We have learned that empowerment must integrate key aspects of responsibility, accountability and shared risk taking. We spoke of five distinct levels of empowerment for a team and its manager/leader. Now we will discuss the need for strong communication skills to help overcome the obstacles for powerful team development and successful, ongoing team operation.  
Remember, as form follows function, strategy usually follows structure. In order to understand this fully, we must understand the evolution of the organization. When individuals (or groups) begin a company, they generally have an idea or a "vision" of what they want to accomplish. From that vision they formulate an initial strategy of how to go about doing it. From that strategy, a "structure" for implementing the strategy and for meeting that vision is created. Notice the order - vision, strategy, structure. However, once the systems are in place those same systems tend to become rigid. (After all, this is the way we have always done it in the past so it must be the correct way, right?)

We become comfortable in our structure, we know our structure, we know what we have done in the past, so, based on our history, we continue our strategies. Voila! Now our structure has begun to determine our strategies. Since strategies have been evolving out of this static structure for quite a while, once new structures are attempted, (i.e. self-managed teams), they throw all the previous strategies, goals, etc. out of kilter.

You have some in the organization who are still thinking the "old" way - static structure, static strategy and static goals. And they are very convinced that they are right. Often, those most resistant are very comfortable. Why should they want to rock the boat or endanger their comfort zone? Then you have "the others", frequently newer employees, not as tied in to the old structure and more ready to embrace change. This creates a type of "values" conflict between these groups.

This brings us to the need for communication skills training. Communication skills and processes training are each important for different reasons. There are certain communication training skills that must be taught to everybody in the organization, starting with management. Because management sets the tone and vision for the rest of the organizational environment, employees will do what they see management doing. These communications skills begin with listening skills. Listening skills are especially important as they underpin a new style of leadership. We can term this new style of leadership a "facilitative" style. For facilitative leadership, the manager needs to learn listening skills to know how to get good input from the group, facilitation skills to facilitate meeting instead of "running meetings", how to coach and how to mediate. The next area where communication skills training is needed is in the realm of empowerment. The manager must understand empowerment and how to set boundaries in areas of authority and responsibility as well as when to give increasing levels of empowerment to team members as the team develops.

The third area needed in communication skills training would be in terms of customer service - how to determine who the customers are, how to communicate with those customers to be clear of their needs and expectations and how to make sure the projects they are working on will meet those needs.

Any organization going through change must stay in constant communication with all its employees. If employees feel included and informed about organization change and how it is impacting them on an ongoing basis, there is a greater likelihood they will see themselves as part of the whole team and pull together for the good of the organization.

Joan Pastor has worked with both private and public organizations as a consultant, conference speaker and trainer. Her in-depth knowledge reflects over nineteen years of experience in implementation of quality improvement programs, building high performing teams, developing the "customer" orientation within and outside the organization, change management and conflict resolution skills. Joan's web site is at http://www.jpa-international.com/.

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