In our experience, the word “empowerment” is widely misunderstood in both corporate, political, and public life. To get a better understanding of this well-intended term, let’s first talk about what empowerment is not.
For example, someone in a news conference or corporate meeting may utter the phrase, “I empower you to . . .” and then they’ll list the job or initiative they want carried out. What exactly do they mean when they say, "I empower you?" When we’ve interviewed a variety of leaders regarding this very question they often admit they don’t really know.
Such irony would be humorous if it didn't so often lead to mishaps. But as we've witnessed far too many times, leaders often act as if they can wave a magic wand and by their mere declaration turn people who were previously unable to do something into fully capable participants.
On the flip side, we’ve witnessed employees go astray within a company that is earnestly trying to implement empowerment. In such cases, the well-meaning employees assume that since they’re “empowered,” they can do things the way they feel is best, regardless of guidelines or accepted protocols.
Both misapplications of empowerment lead to trouble. So, what is actual empowerment?
Here’s a definition we’ve found helpful:
Empowerment is what occurs when an individual or group chooses to tap into their full capacity to solve a problem or achieve an outcome within the guidelines, authority, and parameters they’ve agreed to and have been granted.
It is absolutely essential to understand that because empowerment is a personal decision, it cannot be bestowed on another person.
Leaders can, however, encourage, support, and stimulate empowerment by creating a culture of accountability where embracing empowerment is expected and required as a condition of employment or participation.
We’ve learned over the years that implementing empowered participation involves three components which we call The Three C’s of Empowerment.
Capability means that a person has demonstrated in the past that they are fully capable of performing the assignment we are inviting them to accept. That means they possess, as Guillory and Galindo describe in their book Empowerment for High-Performing Organizations, the cognitive, interpersonal, and technical skills to do the job.
If we are going to invite a person to take on a project beyond their demonstrated capability, we need to ensure they have adequate training, coaching and/or mentoring to provide them a genuine chance to succeed at the “stretch project.”
The advantage of this approach? We’re not guessing as to someone’s true capability and we’re aware of the support we may need to provide up front.
Clarity relates to establishing crystal clear expectations about the desired outcome, parameters, and process of getting there . . . and the freedom which they may or may not explore to deviate from established norms. Written guidelines are essential to keep all parties on track and avoid “mission drift” or memory lapses when questions arise.
Make sure that your expectations include whatever support is available, their scope of authority, and what the limits are, as well as check-in points, hazards, possible rewards, acknowledgment, consequences, etc. that may apply.
The benefits of establishing clarity in this manner? The chance for confusion and misalignment is greatly reduced.
Commitment refers to upfront buy-in and personal ownership of the outcome. That means that each person involved acknowledges and demonstrates their commitment (in both word and deed) to engage their full capability in their respective roles to ensure that the outcome measures up to the agreed-upon guidelines for achieving the goal(s). In order to achieve this level of commitment, it’s essential to create an open discussion at the onset and throughout a project to facilitate new ideas, concerns, and to build ongoing rapport, trust, and buy-in.
The essential ingredient for commitment, as we’ve described it here, is an experiential understanding by each person involved of what it means to be personally and collectively responsible and accountable (i.e. assuming full quantum responsibility), as described in a previous blog (The Secrets of Maximizing Your Power). If a person's commitment is not fully in place, it may be a great opportunity for coaching and mentoring to get to the bottom of their hesitation or resistance.
The benefit of verifying commitment up front? There are far fewer surprises downstream from people sharing reservations about their role, the process, or the goal itself.
To be clear, it is the job of the person who is granting authority or offering an assignment to ensure that these three components are in place with the person who they are inviting to participate.
But let’s not leave it there.
While someone in a management, supervisory--or in the case of a family, a parental role--assumes responsibility for ensuring these three conditions are present, the person accepting the new assignment or role has a corollary responsibility as well.
It is their job to ensure that their manager or supervisor has put these conditions in place and to decide if they will or won’t accept the assignment or opportunity that is being presented.
Thriving leaders know how to assess their colleagues relative to these three C’s. As a result, they not only develop an accurate view of the facts but also an intuitive sense of potential that awaits activation.
If we only provide opportunities for empowerment to those who are fully qualified, we’ll probably eventually suffer from a talent deficit. The art is to assign tasks to those who reach some sort of “sufficiency threshold” and will use this opportunity to build on their existing abilities. That’s how we grow our people.
The phrase, “If you want something done right you have to do it yourself” stems from survival thinking. Such an approach reveals that the one speaking doesn’t know how to develop a thriving culture where empowerment can flourish.
Yes, it takes more time initially to have others learn to become proficient at something you yourself mastered long ago, but if you don’t delegate, train, coach, and mentor, and then trust others to eventually outperform you, everyone will tread water under your own personal competency ceiling.
When you’re elected to become personally empowered, you will constantly seek to raise that ceiling because you don’t perceive others as a threat. If one of your team outgrows you, you trust the same strategy will always work, to continue empowering yourself by assuming full responsibility for the tasks at hand, however they change over time.
An additional note: Allowing a space of silence during a conversation can encourage empowerment.
As a friend of mine (Will) once said, “I’d rather hear someone else speak the answer than myself.” This illuminates another powerful Thriving Leadership Practice: Leveraging the Genius of Inclusion. We can provide space for others to shine, give them room on “the stage,” even invite them to be the one who saves the day when crises strike.
Shakespeare’s comment about assuming a virtue is traditionally interpreted as referring to oneself and the idea of pretending. But it can also be applied to others: assume a virtue in them, expect them to rise to the occasion, invite them into opportunities for growth. Then employ the Three Cs of Empowerment and prepare to celebrate their success and watch them grow into it.
That attitude, whether it’s directed at oneself or others, is the real secret to empowerment. Empowerment is a choice, not a result.
Here’s your Thriving challenge for the week:
“Consider the people with whom you work.
What is it you can do to better support them?
How might you better demonstrate
capability, clarity and commitment
in each endeavor that you’re engaged in?”
Christopher Harding and Will Wilkinson