by Phil Manington

Common questions

  1. What is empowerment?
  2. What benefits will I get?
  3. How do I create an empowering culture?
  4. What difference can I make on my own?
  5. How do I start?
  6. What’s the difference between delegation and empowerment?
  7. Why does it fail?


1. What is empowerment?

Empowerment is about the creation of a culture in which managers trust their people and believe that, once they are told what to do, they will get on and do it without needing to be told how to do it. In addition, staff will feel that they have real control over their working lives and have the power to act and work with minimum intervention from their managers.

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.

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


2. What benefits will I get?

An empowerment culture delivers real improvements to an organisation, and as manager of an empowered team you will also gain significant benefits for yourself:

  • Your people will be keen to be co-operative and build consensus, making it easier (and quicker) for you to get things done
  • They will be willing to be involved in decision-making, helping you to improve the quality of your performance
  • They will be honest with you, delivering bad news if necessary, instead of hiding things
  • Members of your team will want to help each other, reducing problems and saving you time
  • People will feel able to take the initiative and act
  • They will welcome change and see it as an opportunity, making it easier for you to implement new ideas
  • Your team members will be willing to handle and resolve internal conflict, reducing the need for you to get involved
  • They will be more creative and innovative
  • They will be eager to apply their knowledge and skills to reduce costs and improve performance
  • They will want to identify and correct defects in business processes.


3. How do I create an empowering culture?

  • Create a shared vision and common set of values.
  • Ensure consistent management behaviour from the top.
  • Trust people.
  • Change systems and procedures so that they encourage empowered behaviour.
  • Be a role model for the behaviour you want to engender among your people.


4. What difference can I make on my own?

As a manager, you can always make a difference. Just how much difference will depend on your company and your position within it. Obviously, you will be able to have a bigger impact if you are CEO than if you are a junior supervisor. However, you are not restricted to your span of control – only by your span of influence. You and your team can be an example of excellent performance that will influence others in the rest of the organisation.

Start with your own team, following the guidelines in First steps. Unless you are the CEO, you will probably not have complete freedom to change everything, particularly company systems and procedures, and you may well get good suggestions from your team that you cannot implement. The important thing is to be open and honest with them. Change what is in your control; argue their case where you have influence, and explain to them what you can’t achieve. Aim to build their trust in you.

There is only one way to build trust – you must walk your talk. A useful principle to operate is that, however you want your people to behave, whatever vision you have for them in the future, you become the living example of that – now.

You will also need to sell your ideas to your boss. Empowerment can be a difficult concept to get across. Use these guidelines as the basis of a proposal and explain the benefits of what you want to do (particularly the benefits to him). Take whatever measures are used to assess your performance and agree targets with your boss to demonstrate the value of what you are doing.


5. How do I start?

  • Start gradually – you are asking people to change their behaviour; this can be difficult and it will usually take a lot of time and effort on your part.
  • Spend time getting to know your people and how they behave.
  • Look for patterns of behaviour. Do people take the initiative? Is there a blame culture? Are people flexible? What sorts of beliefs do people hold about the company, its style and its management?
  • Establish a clear vision of what you want to achieve, in a way that everyone in your team can relate to. They need to understand the big picture but they also need to understand specifically how their job contributes to this big picture.
  • Gain commitment for your vision from all who need to be involved – your boss, your colleagues and your staff.


6. What’s the difference between delegation and empowerment?

Delegation is a process, whereas empowerment is a state of being – people feel empowered. Managers create an empowerment culture by taking a series of actions that, amongst other things, include delegation.

Delegation involves trusting subordinates with the authority to act on your behalf – they can make decisions, make changes and take action within specific rules. Delegation is a process in which you agree scope and objectives of delegated tasks with your staff and trust them to complete them satisfactorily.

Empowerment is about releasing the potential of people. Clearly, successful delegation will help and is an important step on the way to empowerment, but there is more to it than that. To understand empowerment we need to consider two different aspects of behaviour:

  • A manager wants to empower his people – to give them empowerment; success will be evidenced when team members take responsibility for doing the things he or she 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.

For empowerment to be successful, these two perspectives need to be aligned, so that what management want people to do matches what they themselves want to do.

Many businesses want to empower their workforce – to create an empowerment culture. Good delegation is one of a number of elements that lead to an empowerment culture. Other key elements are alignment of vision and values, good organisational systems and appropriate management behaviour.


7. Why does it fail?

There are two main reasons why empowerment initiatives fail, the first of these being inappropriate management behaviour:

  • Managers haven’t the flexibility to change and develop the new skills needed
  • They feel that their power and status is being downgraded
  • They underestimate the size and scope of the changes needed
  • They continue to treat people like children, rather than trusting them to behave like adults
  • They confuse empowerment with abdication of responsibility, leading to a breakdown in control.

The second major cause of failure is that the systems and procedures are incompatible with empowered behaviour, leading to

  • Staff expectations that can’t be fulfilled, and consequent frustration
  • Resentment because extra responsibility is not accompanied by more pay
  • Disenchantment when company rules interfere with innovative behaviour.