Organizational Behaviour

Empowerment & #Leadership

Empowerment is a crucial tool in our modern leadership toolkit. We write and talk about “empowering” our people constantly – Google the term empowerment; you’ll get nine million search results. Empowerment has a couple of meanings, as you’ll see in the definition from Fowler’s Modern English Use Dictionary:

Empower is a 17c verb meaning ‘to give power or authority to’. In the 1970s it acquired a new meaning, ‘to make (someone) able to do something’, implying the freedom to adopt moral values and principles of one’s choice as advocated by members of the New Age movement and others. A person who is self-empowered is able to act independently of the constraints imposed by conventional values…

The idea of empowerment today is that we don’t tell someone what to think, rather we coach and develop the capacity for each individual to choose for themselves. How do we move from a group of empowered individuals, who may see the world quite differently to a team of people who are aligned behind a vision with shared beliefs, experiences, values and work ethic? If we believe that everyone has the right to empowerment, where does that leave the traditional role of leadership; providing vision, mission and organizational culture?

The modern solution has been to democratize leadership. In other words, everyone is a leader.  So far democratized leadership has been a bit of a wash. The research suggests that it is slower, tends to focus on shared information rather than the unique knowledge that each member brings to the table, and the decisions are not necessarily better than those reached individually. Certainly there is some evidence that groups can perform better than individuals, but group performance depends on good group process, which is a rare thing in organizations.

Yet we need to empower people in our organizations. They expect it. They are motivated by it. Combined, they have greater knowledge than any one CEO about how to achieve the organization’s vision.  Any one individual just doesn’t have the physical and mental resources to tackle the big challenges facing organizations today.

So what is a leader to do? How do we combine leadership, empowerment and teamwork?  Finding ways for teams to be both empowered and effective. Don’t start planning a team building off-site. They don’t work. Developing effective team processes involves doing the hard work in the boardroom, consciously, painfully addressing the behaviours and biases that make our teams less than effective. There is no simple fix for effective team work – it’s hard work.

Source: “empower”  Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Ed. Robert Allen. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  University of Western Ontario.  31 May 2012   <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t30.e1173&gt;

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2 replies »

  1. Empowerment is a great concept, however, empowerment as a tool in business, whether corporate, industrial, government or small business, sucks!
    If you believe it is ‘to give power or authority to’ then you also realize that the authority can be taken away. In the followers mind it is just a scam to pass along blame. The follower, quite often, proven correct.
    If you believe ‘to make (someone) able to do something’, implying the freedom to adopt moral values and principles of one’s choice as advocated by members of the New Age movement and others. A person who is self-empowered is able to act independently of the constraints imposed by conventional values…, then you are on the outside looking in at a new concept and judging it by conventional criteria.
    If you believe ‘The idea of empowerment today is that we don’t tell someone what to think, rather we coach and develop the capacity for each individual to choose for themselves.’ then you are coaching individuals to do exactly what they have been doing all their lives. Yes, they have chosen to be where they are whether they like where they are or not.
    Each of the above are ego based, controllable and usually non-functional when trying to build a team to accomplish a vision.
    In the definition associated with the New Age movement you use the concept of empowerment and self-empowerment interchangeably and that comes from the outside looking in. As you have pointed out, empowerment is ‘given’, ‘made’, or ‘coached’. That means that empowerment can be ‘taken’, ‘destroyed’, or ‘return the same results as before’.
    People who are self-empowered have realized that they are their own authority in regards to themselves. They have become accountable and responsible for their actions. They are not victims of any system nor do they become victimizers within a system so working within a team does not become a problem.
    I believe you’re right about the hard work, though it’s the individual who has that to accomplish. In fact, after the initial realization that they are their own authority regarding themselves the work becomes harder because conventional morals and constraints within a system really don’t like to see anyone who is that uncontrollable.
    So, are the self-empowered the perfect working tool? Not by a long shot! The difference lies in the knowledge that they know that they have the authority to change whatever they find in themselves that is unacceptable and they apply that knowledge only to themselves.

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