Empowerment – fool’s gold or the real thing?

Over the years, the term empowerment has become part of everyday management language.  It has all the hallmarks of a winning concept: by giving individuals greater control over decisions that affect their work, they feel more engaged and fulfilled, and at the same time productivity and quality improve.  What’s not to love?

On closer inspection however, there’s a faint whiff of snake oil about the whole thing, managers giving back what they took away in the first place.  While of course there are individuals who find problem-solving and decision-making difficult at the best of times, many have no problem with these at all.  So, what robbed people of their natural abilities, and instilled in them instead a sense of learned helplessness

Empowerment is not just about adding vitality to a flagging workforce, with the implication that it is the workforce that needs to be fixed.  There is something rather patronising about a manager acting as Lord or Lady Bountiful bestowing on their people the power to use their own judgement, provided they stay well within the clearly defined limits of their pay grade

As well as thinking about how to empower staff therefore, managers should be focusing on eliminating the ways in which the organisation actively disempowers them.  There is little point introducing empowerment measures unless these are accompanied by a thorough overhaul of the organisational structures, policies and procedures that prevent individuals from using their judgement.   Without a culture where trust is clearly demonstrated, risk is acceptable and blame avoided, empowerment is likely to become yet another idea that sounds good in theory but achieves little in practice.