by Phil Manington

What is empowerment?

To empower people is to give them power and release their potential.

Empowerment must be considered from two perspectives:

  • A manager wants to empower his people – to give them empowerment – and will feel that he has been successful if team members take responsibility for doing the things he wants them to do
  • People want to feel empowered – they want to take power; they will feel that they are empowered if they have control over their own working lives and have the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

For people to feel empowered and act in an empowered manner, these two perspectives need to be aligned, so that what management want people to do matches what they themselves want to do.

Empowerment is not another word for delegation, although the two are often confused. Delegation is a process, whereas empowerment is a state of being. Successful businesses seek to empower their workforce – to create an empowerment culture. Good delegation is important, but it is only one of a number of elements that lead to an empowerment culture. Other key elements are the alignment of vision and values, good organisational systems and appropriate management behaviour.

Empowerment is about

  • Letting your people get on with the job
  • Giving your staff real authority and responsibility
  • Letting them take the decisions they feel are right
  • Removing unnecessary bureaucracy
  • Encouraging them to develop and implement their ideas for improvements.

Jan Carlzon tells the story of how, when he was CEO of Scandinavian Airlines, a plane was delayed and all the passengers had to disembark. The stewardess wanted to provide refreshments, but the purser refused, since it exceeded his delegated authority. She went to the coffee shop and bought everyone coffee with her own money.

They had both been given delegated responsibilities, but she felt empowered and he didn’t. Carlzon cited this as the sort of behaviour he wanted to encourage throughout his organisation – taking the initiative to ensure great customer service.

Empowerment is not a discrete state – it is a continuum: an individual might feel a little bit empowered or significantly empowered. An organisation might therefore have some employees who feel fully empowered and others who feel completely disempowered.