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Is Empowerment Merely a Myth?

“You do realize that the popular concept of empowerment is a myth, right?”

That’s not what a person usually says to their manager, but the frustrated shift supervisor said it anyway. And her manager was stumped. How should he respond? And what exactly did she mean?

So how about you? What’s your understanding of empowerment? Is it a myth or some mystical power effective leaders are able to bestow upon those they lead?

Of course not, you may say. So, what is it then?

Why do we ask? Because in our work with organizations large and small, we’ve discovered that empowerment is a much-misunderstood term. Often, when a leader says something like “you are empowered to carry out this assignment,” what they actually mean is, “I’m delegating this task to you.”

What the employee often hears is, “I’m now in charge of this process and can go about it in the manner I determine best” or “I think they just pushed this assignment off on to me and now I’m on the hook for it.”

What’s too frequently missing in such situations is any real clarity about what “empowerment” means and how it can be applied effectively.

But there’s a deeper idea to ponder as well.

What if the shift supervisor was correct? What if we can’t really “empower” anyone other than ourselves?

Sure, we can delegate tasks or authority, but the key factor we've discovered—one that is often missing in many leaders' consideration process—is that ultimately it is each individual who decides whether or not they will accept our invitation to truly engage in creating the result we had in mind.

How so?

In our experience, the only one who can truly empower you, is you. And the same goes for others.

Self-empowerment arises from a conscious mindset where a person assumes personal responsibility for their role in creating an outcome. What we can do as leaders to encourage this actively, is to create an environment that supports and rewards self-empowerment within the specific guidelines and framework required to get a job done well.

Empowerment for others, then, involves seeing ourselves as responsible for helping others assume full personal responsibility for themselves by creating the preconditions that make it more natural.

In our book, Thriving in Business and Life, and its companion on-line course, we discuss a process by which leaders can more effectively create an environment of empowerment and thus set people up for success. The process starts by assessing a person’s current empowerment level and future potential (before making an assignment) by utilizing what we call The Three C’s of Empowerment: Capability, Clarity, and Commitment.

Capability relates to a person's ability to perform, and includes cognitive skills, interpersonal skills and technical skills.

Of these three, most of us were trained to focus primarily on a person’s technical skill-level when making an assessment because it’s the easiest to observe and improve via training.

The other two areas—cognitive skills and interpersonal skills—are typically not as well understood and are not as rigorously assessed. These are the very areas we focus more of our attention on with our Thriving Practices, simply because they are so routinely overlooked.

In assessing cognitive capability, we explore how well a person takes into account the likely future consequences of their choices. In addition, how well are they able to "travel upstream" to more fully understand the full flow of what they're about to engage in?

With interpersonal skills, we consider a person’s history, particularly in regard to how they have resolved past conflicts. Do they tend to turn professional matters into personal ones; and have they developed proven collaboration skills, particularly in working with those who have differing viewpoints?

Clarity is about developing clear expectations, which includes establishing a well-defined scope of authority as well as making sure the person understands what “success” looks like for a particular project or assignment.

Do they understand how often we expect them to check in with us and what kind of support we will provide? Real clarity develops when we level-set expectations and define the desired outcome in clear language and then have them repeat back to us their understanding of what we said; and what they will or will not do to achieve the outcome.

Commitment is the pivotal skill. Without it, someone who seems highly empowered in the other two categories will invariably fail.

In assessing this category, we can look at how they have handled past challenges. Did pressure lead them to intensify their efforts and tap into their support networks or did they retreat? What also helps here, is to be clear about a person’s level of commitment by walking through “what if?” scenarios with them while paying particular attention to their attitude and resourcefulness.

As Thriving Leaders we have the opportunity to empower ourselves by adopting a mindset of full personal responsibility for our unique role and how we carry it out via the environment and culture we create. As we do, we’ll become far better at supporting our team members to do the same.

Your Thriving Breakthrough opportunity for the week:

Use the 3 C’s of Empowerment to assess one of your team members. What do you discover? How does this new information assist you to support them to step into a greater level of self-empowerment? What can you do to support that process?

Will Wilkinson and Christopher Harding

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