Empowerment is a simple formula: Authority + Resources. If a leader tells someone they are empowered but they do not give them those two elements, they are misleading their people and laying a foundation for discouragement and mistrust.
Logic of the Recipe
The word empower is comprised of two parts: em + power. The etymology of the word “em” or “en” comes from French and Latin words that mean “in” or “into.” The etymology of the word “power” also comes from French and Latin and one of the first meanings is the “ability to act or do.”
Putting together the concept of em+power (empower) results in the principle of giving someone an ability to act. The way we use “empower” in our modern business lexicon has that very intent – to allow people to act in order to accomplish something specific on behalf of the group or organization.
True empowerment requires a commitment of authority and resources into the hands of the empowered person so that they may act. If a person has both authority to make a decision and the resources to execute that decision, then that person is empowered. If a person lacks one or both of those elements they are not empowered.
It is important to recognize that not everyone can or should be empowered. There are some projects and conditions where we need to empower in order to allow the organization to advance and flourish. There are also times when it is clear that empowerment has to be limited and aligned with the culture’s established or tolerated levels of decision-authority.
It is important for leaders to be honest and state up front who is and who is not empowered.
One of the important secrets to effective leadership is to empower along the lines of responsibility. If you are not willing to give resources to accomplish an objective, goal, project, or process improvement, and if you are not willing to give the authority to make the change, you are not really empowering anyone to do anything.
As a leader you will need to decide what empowerments you are willing to give, and then make sure to properly empower using the recipe (Authority + Resources). Lack of appropriate empowerment stagnates the organization and creates leadership bottlenecks.
Therapeutic empowerment destroys morale and dramatically reduces your leadership power. Joanne Ciulla, in her book entitled Ethics, the Heart of Leadership, described a condition where management practices and theories could be manipulative. In this segment from her book she describes what leads to “Therapeutic Fiction,” which is manipulating people so that they may feel empowered. The condition is therapeutic because it makes people “feel” better and it is fiction because it simply isn’t true.
“If our culture places more importance on psychic truths than on real truths, and if some ‘truths’ or therapeutic fictions are effective because they make people happier, then leaders have an obligation only to make people feel empowered. They don’t have to give them actual power.
There are empowerment and bogus empowerment…. Bogus empowerment [is] the use of therapeutic fictions to make people feel better about themselves, eliminate conflict, and satisfy their desire to belong (niceness), so that they will freely choose to work toward the goals of the organization (control of individualism) and be productive (instrumentalism). Leaders who offer bogus empowerment are unauthentic, insincere, and disrespectful of others.”
Bad Outcomes of Therapeutic Empowerment
Therapeutic empowerment makes people feel better for a time by providing a temporary delusion that a person is empowered. However, when the individual realizes that there is, in fact, no empowerment, the result can range from a retrenched apathy to an out-and-out rebellion.
People come to the conclusion they are not empowered when they run into situations where they need to make a decision but are not allowed, or when they make a decision but it gets overruled, or when they cannot expend resources to put something in motion (the resources are not in their control).
Empower According to Condition and Scope
To avoid the fictional therapy approach to empowerment leaders should consider what they are truly willing to empower and what they are not. Not every person in the organization needs to be completely empowered but they do need to be empowered to the extent that they can accomplish their assignment.
Wise leaders let individuals know in advance the extent of their empowerment and give them a way to manage when they’ve reached the limits of their empowerment.
For example, a leader may give an assignment to an individual and not only explain the resources and authority that the individual has as part of the assignment, but also explain what to do when they are outside of their empowerment by having them check back in with the leader.
“Jessica, I would like you to explore the potential of deploying a new telecommunications system. You will want to open discussions with a number of vendors and I would like you to be the face of the company to them. As you explore the options if you have to make any short-term financial commitments or expenditures please check back in with me and we can do that part together.”
In that scenario the leader gave Jessica an assignment that authorized her a certain level of responsibility and authority. The leader also told Jessica where her authority and resources ended and what to do when she reached that point. As Jessica executes this project she has a clear understanding of what she can and cannot do.
Because the leader is clear about the empowerment level, Jessica will not feel disappointed or angry or tricked when she reaches the end of her true empowerment.
Most leaders do not intend to use therapeutic empowerment. In most cases it occurs because the leader is not really thinking about what it means to empower and how much power the leader is willing to let go. In those cases, the leader is careless in communicating their intent and that sows the seeds of a misleading empowerment condition.