Another Frustrating Principle: Empowerment

By Bradford F. Spencer, Ph.D.     (Spring 1992)

Some time ago, I became disenchanted with the term “excellence” as a management term. It would seem Tom Peter’s and Bob Waterman’s book, In Search of Excellence, had spawned a series of programs, each of which was designed to carry itself on the back of this successful book. Hearing it everywhere I turned, the term “excellence” finally got to me because the word only represented the myth, wish, or simple desire of companies without the disciplined implementation of the basic principles. I am currently facing the same struggle with the term “empowerment.” However, this term may have some hope since it represents a specific process within an organization.

Because of the financial successes of organizations that were able to push decision-making down through the organizational structure, many companies are currently scrambling to adopt programs to “empower” their employees. They are adapting new training programs and measurement tools to determine who, among their managers, is most quickly denuding themselves of the historic perk of management authority.

This became very real to me recently when I was approached by a manager who was extremely frustrated by the fact that she was continuously attempting to “empower” her people, but with seemingly little success. It turns out there are some things in life you cannot give others. There are certain things people must take. Power is one of them. In the hierarchical system in which she worked, people had for so long been socialized into waiting for someone else to make the decision or to approve an action at a senior level that merely telling them things had changed was obviously a futile process.

Unfortunately for leaders, all we can do is offer an environment where the norm is to consistently reward “taking power.” Within this daily environment, people take authority and accountability. When employees eagerly make decisions, take actions, and assume risks once reserved for individuals who had scrambled further up the ladder, they find work more than simply a job.

Should anyone mistake this brief article as questioning the concept or appropriateness of empowerment, let me assure you, that is a misreading. The phenomena, however, of empowerment is larger than an individual telling someone he or she is empowered. It calls upon that individual to take risks, to make decisions, and act in a manner which suggests they are their own boss. Once this is done, then management behaviors are very important. The single most important piece of this is to find a way to fastidiously avoid the traditional “you-could-have-done-it-better” approach of management. For someone struggling for the first time, it really requires patience, understanding, and a particular grasp of the concept of organization change. It is in the reality of organization behavior change, rather than individual behavior change, that empowerment roots take hold.

When most people undertake this approach, what they expect is to change their managerial processes by degree. In reality, what happens is that the old processes must be blown up because they simply don’t work. It is only when the system changes that empowerment becomes reality. While individual managers can and do prevent systems change, they do not force it. When individuals freely accept responsibility and begin acting in a manner which says they have brought their brains to the job, not simply their hands and legs, this is empowerment. Individuals can prevent it from happening, but they cannot cause it to happen. Waiting for empowerment to happen will not cause it.

There are some things just too precious to be received as gifts. “Empowerment” is something which we must invite our employees to take, be prepared to help them with the struggle in taking it, and realize that, while we may offer it, accepting the gift for them is beyond our means. Thus, managers and executives have one more item on their plate to find frustrating.

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