It’s a straightforward question. I suspect many of you believe that you do, and I would certainly hope you are right. Others of you will qualify your affirmative statement with exceptions to the practice. Still others will offer a variety of anecdotal reasons (bad experiences) why empowerment is an overrated practice.
We each view empowerment differently, and because we tend to do so with great variety, our experiences – good and bad – tend to vary widely, too. The question begs an answer: do we truly know what it means to empower an employee?
Let’s start with a definition. In its simplest form, empowerment is a leader’s relinquishing their power to the lowest possible level in an organization where a good and proper decision or action can be reasonably expected. So far, so good. But what makes a decision or action proper? What is that lowest possible level? For leaders, it’s a comfort level. The level of comfort a leader experiences when considering relinquishing power to a subordinate manager or frontline supervisor tends to determine what a leader might consider proper and reasonable. It’s not a rational choice and there is no simple checklist for making that decision. That’s right, you guessed it. It’s a choice of the gut usually founded in experience.
For some leaders, then, empowerment is decided on a hunch, a feeling, a premonition.
But what of the first half of that definition? Many leaders consider assigning a task to be empowerment. Others think assigning a simple decision to be empowerment. But empowerment is far more than that. The definition uses the word “relinquish” purposefully. It is very much like the letting go of directly acting upon a specifically targeted task of leadership. Leadership is, for this one task or assignment, decentralized to a lower level, along with the responsibility and accountability for carrying out the decision being made by the other. The leader plays a supportive, resource-delivering entity; the inverted pyramid is in play, if you will.
For many leaders, especially those burned by a prior poor choice to empower, or a strong fear of failure, or the sense that this one decision is “too critical” to decentralize, the idea of relinquishing power is a bit too far down the rabbit hole. But that’s what empowerment is: if you’re going to empower someone with a decision or task, you will have to disempower yourself first. That’s a tough call to make. And, that’s why we often make this decision with our hearts rather than our heads.
Rational, evidence-based research tells us that empowerment works. This disempowering of the leader—through the empowering of the subordinate—offers great reward and benefits to the organization over time. Decisions are made by those closest to the situation, to the data, to the client. Results, when positive, lift morale. Results, when negative, educate the staff in ways no other centralized action could ever hope to accomplish. This is how organizations learn and grow: empowerment.
Empowerment begins in the heart. The heart to let go, the heart to teach, the heart to grow. It also requires a strong culture of support, encouragement, and training, to give subordinates the best possible chances of success. It requires high standards, and high reward, and an open door that sincerely says, “I’m here if you need me.” It requires monitoring and performance review, to be sure, but as a teaching methodology for the future potential of the next generation of leaders. And it involves the expression of confidence and the willingness to remove the constraints that traditionally hinder the best decisions and swiftest actions within an organization.
In the end, empowerment is about empowering the whole organization. Relinquishing power at the top, empowers the whole.