Empowerment is quite a buzzword of the moment. It describes the giving of power to someone so they can do something. Disempowerment, then, is when power is taken from people so they are unable to do something. Empowerment and disempowerment are relational factors that affect the dynamic between a leader and someone they lead. A leaders actions either empower or disempower, whether this happens intentionally or unintentionally.
There are occasions whereby disempowerment is a legitimate action in a leadership context. An organisational transition is one example. Things need to change in the big picture, which means many small changes across the board. But disempowerment as a culture – meaning, the organisational norm – is a form of control. A controlling culture seeks to manage both results and all aspects of the process that produces those results. People are encouraged to ‘do’ instead of ‘think’. There are occasions this is healthy to ensure thinking and talking don’t replace acting, but often times the control of the process quashes individuality and creativity. The system masters the people, instead of serving them.
Empowerment, then, is the opposite of control. The greater the level of empowerment, the smaller the presence of controlling leadership and management. Empowerment generates increased organisational creativity and thinking. Both of these can be threats to the status quo, but growth only comes from doing what hasn’t been done before.
When alternative opinions or creativity are stifled, growth is restricted. You may see an increase in adherence – a following of the rules, which perpetuates the controlling culture. But obedience is not the same as growth. Peoples abilities grow through the employment of their talents, and all that they bring to an organisation. So how do we manage the tension between much-needed guidelines and making space for people to wholeheartedly bring themselves into our organisation?
Let me ask it another way: how do we successfully empower people? How do we allow people to bring their distinctiveness, without letting them run riot through our systems and structures?
I see successful empowerment as being comprised of the interaction of three aspects:
1. Authority – “I am allowed”
2. Responsibility – “I am expected”
3. Accountability – “I am required”
Anyone who is led or managed by someone needs to know three things. Firstly, what are they allowed to do? What CAN they do?
Secondly, what are they expected to do? What SHOULD they do?
Thirdly, how are they required to do it? How MUST they do it?
If one or more of these aspects is unclear, the result is a form of disempowerment that affects the individual being led, the leader, and the organisation as a whole.
1. Effective empowerment only exists when authority is clarified
Authority is our permission level within an organisation. What are we allowed to do? This question also tells us what we are not allowed to do. Authority brings power when we act within the limits of it. If no authority level is clarified, then those we lead won’t be able to act – they won’t know what is safe or appropriate in their role. Both result in people unable to act because they don’t know what is OK, and what isn’t.
The clarification and allowing others to use their authority is one of the most powerful factors in seeing healthy organisations grow. Leaders grow when they are allowed to lead. In my experience, whenever there is a leadership ‘squeeze’ on the releasing of authority throughout the organisation, eventually there will be a growth ceiling. The multiplication of empowered leaders with genuine authority doesn’t diminish an organisation but only adds to it. This giving away of authority requires trust, especially as if people are genuinely empowered, they might not do things the way you would like them too! Taking risks with people, then, is a crucial flavour in empowering them. Giving people space to make mistakes, cause a mess, and learn from it, is a key to the development and growth of people. Yes, it is painful and frustrating, and chaotic. But in the long run, the benefits outweigh the cost of a small nucleus of power holding everything tightly, making every decision, and losing quality people who eventually get frustrated and move on because they have no opportunity for growth.
To determine what level of authority someone will need for their role, consider the following questions:
a) Do they lead/manage anyone?
b) How much money can they spend without asking permission?
c) What can they start without asking permission?
d) What can they stop without asking permission?
e) What can they change without asking permission?
f) What areas of decision-making do they have to consult with about with leaders about before acting?
This isn’t an exhaustive list but can help clarify authority levels.
2. Effective empowerment only exists when responsibility is clarified
Our responsibility is the expectations and goals that have been put before us. These are the things that we define success by. If those we lead are not clear on what they are being asked to do, they may do nothing and squander resources. Or they will do something, which could be anything and everything! Clarity of roles and responsibility is vital for a successful organisation. Clear responsibilities and expectations also help us define exactly the level of authority needed to fulfil those responsibilities. Disproportionate authority can be as damaging to an organisation as unclear expectations.
To determine what level of responsibility someone will need for their role, ask the following questions:
a) What are they assessed or appraised on?
b) What does success look like in their role?
c) If they lead/manage anyone, what are their responsibilities?
d) What things, if they don’t do them, would bring about difficult conversations from their leader?
e) What things, if they focused on them, wouldn’t cause any issue from their leader?
f) What areas is their leader most interested in hearing about from them?
This isn’t an exhaustive list but can help clarify responsibility levels
3. Effective empowerment only exists when accountability is clarified
Accountability is a triggering word for some. It elicits thoughts of control and micro-management – the very things I’m saying that empowerment isn’t! Is it possible that we’ve lost sight of what true healthy accountability is?
Rather than being a stick to beat people with when they haven’t met expectations, accountability is “helping someone give an account of their ability.” It is less about punishment and more about support. Healthy accountability means that we know who is working alongside us to ensure we are successful in what we have to do. Accountability that isn’t dysfunctional encourages, champions, supports and listens – it doesn’t smite when things don’t go according to plan.
Without accountability, we aren’t managed. This will result in either us working independently, or not doing anything at all. Accountability ensures we keep focused on our assigned responsibility. It enables us to maximise the authority given to us – neither overstepping it nor underutilising it.
To determine the nature of accountabilities needed in a role, ask the following questions:
a) who do they go to if they have an issue?
b) who has an interest in their role AND the authority to affect it?
c) who can increase or decrease their level of authority?
d) who can change their responsibilities?
e) who can check in with them without asking permission?
f) who do they answer to?
Conclusion: effective empowerment aligns the best of people and the best of systems
When these three aspects align, we will have an empowered team. Each individual will know what they need to do, what they can do to see it happen, and who they need to work with in doing so. They will also understand what systemic restrictions they need to work within. Because of the relational nature of true empowerment, a leader/manager isn’t too distant to allow these systems to be changed fully as the life of the organisation moves forward. This dynamic means that creativity and questions have room to flourish, which promotes growth individually and organisationally.
Ask yourself today: what can you do to increase the level of empowerment of those you lead or manage?
If you aren’t sure, why not ask them?