Empowerment – how can I make sure it doesn’t go too far?

Cathy Glass Generally empowerment is seen to be a ‘good thing’ isn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to take ownership, use their initiative, get on with their job enthusiastically? But managers tell me there’s a problem for them. Too much empowerment and people will break rules, getting themselves, the team, or the company into trouble. Isn’t their job to ensure things stay on track? So, empowerment is a ‘good thing’, as long as it ‘doesn’t go too far’.

That’s a genuine dilemma for managers, who are held accountable by their seniors for both maintaining control and increasing empowerment. Workshop discussions are rich and real about how do I as a manager do this, how does it work in context of my team and my organisational role?

Let’s start with an Oxford dictionary, whose definition of empowerment describes both external lines of authority and expanding inner strengths.

 Empower (verb)

  1. Give (someone) the authority or power to do something: Synonyms include authorise, license, entitle, permit, allow, sanction, delegate, certify, accredit, qualify; give someone the authority, give someone permission; enable, equip, give the power to, give the means to
  2. Make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights

Acknowledging the duality of the word reassures managers it’s not all ‘fluff’.

It’s like driving – an analogy for empowerment in organisational life:

  • people are expected to take 100% personal responsibility the moment they step into the car to drive; there are consequences for not doing so
  • we trust them to abide by the rules, to drive on the designated side of the road
  • we also want them to take personal responsibility for deciding to go outside the regular rules in order to avoid a crash, like in the face of a truck approaching on the wrong side; there are also consequences for taking these decisions and they can be complex
  • there are formal ways we certify people to help them to competently drive their vehicles and to adhere to the agreed rules of the road
  • there are also systems to assure vehicle and road maintenance are ‘fit for purpose’

So the job of the manager is to help people pass their driving test, to know the rules that exist, to be equipped for the job. And also to support their people exercise the mind and skill-sets that equip them to be aware of the personal responsibility they exert in moments of choice – the moments they encounter the metaphorical truck on the wrong side of the road.

For managers looking to build empowerment, establishing clear lines of authority is only half the picture. Helping their people adopt the mindsets and develop skills that bring personal responsibility to life, enriching individuals and teams, is the other half. We call it being a ‘player’ – as in playing on the field rather than the alternative state of watching from the side as a ‘victim’, who remains powerless.

As a ‘player’ you bring a practical, action oriented, can-do attitude to the job at hand, whether it be driving a car or handling your office job. While you may not know the way forward yet, may have much to learn, may not instantly know the answers, being in player mindset is the essence of empowerment.



About the author

Cathy leads the UK & Nordic market as well as our Culture Practice, with an eye on continuously developing and improving our approach to culture transformation journeys. She has a passion for pulling the right levers for change, identifying what a company can do to shift to a higher-performing culture. Read more >

3 thoughts on “Empowerment – how can I make sure it doesn’t go too far?

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  1. yes there is a big move toward empowerment as a ‘tool’, I think it’s so much more a way of being than that don’t you?

  2. Beautifully written Cathy and what occurs to me when I read this is the power of conversations and asking Managers what they want and eliciting from them their need and so often Managers receive the order you need to empower people – and then that word leads to so many assumptions. My inference is its not only the word that people react to but the order to do it. Thats why I love Axialents conversation frameworks as these enable people to get to what they want and then help the other person to get to what they want and then together find a solution to get the job done

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