There has been a significant increase in the use of the word empowerment in leadership articles and theories in the last few years.
Routed in the fight for greater representation from marginalised and minority groups the term has now become a phrase that is widely used in business and organisational contexts.
Yet, do we really know what the term even means?
What is empowerment?
Empowerment means people having power and control over their own lives. People get the support they need that is right for them. Empowerment means that people are equal citizens. They are respected and confident in their communities.
This definition throws up some challenges for the way that we use the term in leadership. Whilst we would love the ideal of autonomous, self determined individuals operating effectively in large organisations the reality is somewhat different. By the very nature of the term, an organisation as a system and order and a way of placing controls and boundaries around the people who are part of that organisation.
So right at the heart there is a conflict between empowerment and organisation.
The question then moves to levels or empowerment. What aspects of a persons work experience do we want them to have control over? What are the aspects that the organisation wants to retain control? What are the consequences of this paradox on the people we lead?
When we empower others…
Despite the above we should all, as leaders, look for opportunities where our teams can be empowered.
What does this mean in practice?
An empowered employee will have the authority and autonomy to determine exactly how they act. They will have the power to fully decide the best way to achieve a desired outcome. They will then be responsible for the decisions that they make, and the outcomes that these decisions lead to. They will be supported where needed, and yet given freedom to operate independently.
For employees to be empowered they require their leaders to create space. They need clarity as to the expectations required and the boundaries of their power. They will need your advice and guidance when requested, yet for this not to imposed when it is not needed. They will require authority to be given, and yet not experience abdication when problems arise. They will seek freedom to operate and control over the “HOW” they work, whilst understanding the red lines that must be understood and applied.
We cannot empower
One of the challenges is the way empowerment is described in modern business. It is often used as a verb, I am going to empower you. Yet, at its very heart empowerment has to be a state and a personal choice. Only I can empower myself – it cannot be done to me or for me. I can be disempowered, and have my authority removed. I can be invited to accept power. I can be authorised to act, and given space and freedom to make autonomous choices. Yet, only I can claim this power and act in an empowered way.
It is a state of mind that is created through an environment that supports individuals to take ownership of their actions and choices.
When empowerment is NOT the right approach
There are several specific environments where empowerment is not an ideal approach. These environments are typified by:
- Specific stringent requirements or rules that must be adhered to
- Routine and or highly ordered tasks that have little or no scope for personal interpretation
- Where trust is low. In a low trust culture empowerment might be seen as burdening or even worse, setting up to fail
- Tight and rigid timelines that leave little scope for flexibility
- Individuals who are unwilling to accept ownership
Top tips for creating greater empowerment in your team
There are however, many opportunities where creating empowerment is a desirable outcome. Here are our top 5 tips for creating greater empowerment in your teams:
- Promote a growth mindset – creating greater empowerment will naturally lead to grater uncertainty and ambiguity and the ability to thrive in these environments is key. Growth Mindset will support this
- Learn from mistakes – the way we respond to mistakes or problems will define how people respond to being empowered. Creating an environment where mistakes are openly discussed and the focus is on learning will remove the fear of failure that might hold others back
- Celebrate progress and the process – when team members demonstrate that they have taken ownership of a certain decision and they achieve good outcomes celebrate. The key is to focus not on the outcome yet on the way they achieved the outcome and the process
- Get out of their way – as a leader you have to remove yourself from the decisions involved. For people to feel empowered they have to know that you are not in any way controlling the decision making approach
- Enable skill growth – in order to fully embrace empowerment team members will need to learn new skills and gain new knowledge. Your role as a leader should be to provide these opportunities, either through direct coaching from yourself or through providing access to learning resources / training