• Kieran Doherty

Empowerment: How organisations miss the point

At one point, I felt like sticking a fork in my eye the next time one of the leadership team mentioned the word empowerment. Why? Because the word was being thrown around like propaganda and the only real outcome from their empowerment initiatives was simple duck-shoving of responsibility. That is, their goal for empowerment was to reduce the need for management support and make employees responsible for their own motivation, development and satisfaction in the workplace. They expected employees to be more agile and motivated to flex, create and evolve for the good of the company.

Regardless of my frustration, I didn’t stick a fork in my eye. After all, it is understandable why there are differing perspectives on empowerment and what it looks like. Across languages there isn’t always an appropriate equivalent for the word ‘empowerment’ and even in English there are different definitions and interpretations for empowerment.

Different Perspectives on Empowerment

From one perspective, empowerment is the responsibility of employees to take ownership of their own motivation, development, goal setting and search for opportunities to progress. The intended outcome being empowered employees who are more confident, competent, less dependent on management, and able to create positive impacts for the organisation. This perspective is often linked with the concept of self-leadership. Self-leading people build a foundation of self-knowledge and self-awareness. They identify goals that are aligned with their strengths, values or desires. And they actively plan, monitor and manage their own progression towards desired outcomes. Here the role and responsibility of the manager or leadership is minimal.

Another perspective emphasizes the responsibility of managers or leaders to grant trust, power, opportunity and autonomy to employees. The intended outcome being an empowered organisation where people feel trusted, valued and supported to contribute, innovate and make decisions to take the organisation further. This perspective is linked with organisational leadership where the organisation recognises the need to create the environment where people can perform. Here the role and responsibility of the manager or leader is to actively build capability, seek to ignite drive and motivation, and provide the organisational support that will allow people to perform.

As these perspectives can appear at odds to one another it begs a question. Where should the responsibility of empowerment lie, to extract the best outcomes for individuals and organisations? Research and literature from the leadership and organisational behaviour fields suggest both are needed for empowerment to be effective. From a research article published in The Leadership Quarterly, authors Stein Amundsen and Øyvind L. Martinsen provide the following definition:

“Empowering leadership is the process of influencing subordinates through power sharing, motivation support, and development support with intent to promote their experience of self-reliance, motivation, and capability to work autonomously within the boundaries of overall organizational goals and strategies”

In a similar vein, the oft cited empowerment definition from Businessdictionary.com or the Business Dictionary app provides the following:

“a management practice of sharing information, rewards, and power with employees so that they can take initiative and make decisions to solve problems and improve service and performance. Empowerment is based on the idea that giving employees skills, resources, authority, opportunity, motivation, as well holding them responsible and accountable for outcomes of their actions, will contribute to their competence and satisfaction.”

What does this mean for organisations?

Empowerment starts with giving. Organisations that really want to empower their people need to create the environment where the managers and leaders that currently hold power are prepared to give. These managers and leaders need to have the understanding, capabilities and desire to:

  • Handover or share power, and demonstrate their trust in people to make decisions, use resources, innovate and improve.

  • Ignite and support motivation within people through inclusion, sustaining purpose, open communication, reward and recognition.

  • Build peoples’ capabilities and support the continuous development of skills, knowledge and attitudes.

With an empowered environment established, organisations can then look to developing peoples' self-leadership behaviours. People will be better equipped to contribute to an organaisation when they have an understanding and confidence in themselves. They can identify and leverage their strengths, plan and manage their development and actively participate towards desired outcomes.

Empowerment is not about telling or simply allowing people to flex, create and evolve for the good of the company. It is about giving people the power, ability and desire to flex, create and evolve to reach and go beyond organisational goals.

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