What is empowerment? LO26199

From: Bill Harris (bill_harris@facilitatedsystems.com)
Date: 02/23/01

Replying to LO26170 --

I saw your note about empowerment this morning, and that prompted me
to finish up this reply I began the other day.

Peggy Stuart wrote:

> Bill said in LO 26160:
> "How can one person empower another (unless empowerment is synonomous with
> authorization)? If I empower you to do something and later take that away
> from you, were you really empowered? Or were you simply authorized? Does
> empowerment only come from within?"
> (For the sake of this dialogue, I will use terms in reference to a position
> rather than a task.)
> Before I pass on my thoughts on Bill's question ... what is empowerment? I
> think that a leader can empower or yes, authorize someone to make decisions
> within the scope of their responsibilities. For example, if empowered, an

I'm glad you went towards defining terms first; it helps me understand
your point. I decided to check in my dictionary (American Heritage, 1981)
and check its use of the word. "empower: 1. To invest with legal power;
authorize. 2. To enable or permit."

So, by that definition, others do empower us; we don't empower ourselves
(that did take all the wind out of my sails for a bit :-).

I recall hearing managers speak differently, though. I recall hearing
them wish for a more empowered workforce and seek ways to get it. They
seem to be asking for employees who are more likely to do a task when they
see it sitting there than to wait for someone to tell them to do it. I
think they were using it as an antonym to apathetic, as describing a
person full of power, no matter how they got it.

I do believe managers bear some responsibility for this by their actions,
and I think that sort of thing has been covered well elsewhere. I also
thing managees (those being managed) bear some responsibility, as in your

> For example, 10 years ago I was told I was empowered to write an article for
> a national publication on my own initiative. (Wow! I worked so hard!) When I
> very proudly passed it by my boss, his only criticism was my choice of
> "...66 women and men...," a phrase I felt was needed in context of the
> article's message of gender equality. He said that term 'women and men' was
> grammatically incorrect. I was then ordered to reverse the genders back to

Let me experiment with a reframing. (I hope this doesn't come across as
hypercritical of your actions.)

I was first tempted to suggest that the only empowerment in the story was
the disempowerment when he corrected your grammar, as if true empowerment
said he'd publish whatever you wrote. Yet that's not quite right. It
certainly seems fair to me that an editor (no, he wasn't an editor, it
sounds like) might want to correct grammatical difficulties with your
writing, so I don't think empowerment in any of its definitions
necessarily implies carte blanche to do what you want without comment or
consequences. Yet his action did have a role in your no longer acting in
an empowered fashion.

Out of curiousity, what would have happened if you had said that your
wording was intentional to make your point? What if you had also noted
other writers who had bent grammatical rules (or, in this case, merely
idiomatic phrasing) to serve a higher good? What if that had led to a
dialog about the point you were making regarding gender equality? What if
your manager had then said he understood your point, supported your
phrasing, and even wanted you to submit your article to other
publications, as well? Would you have then been (or felt) empowered?

What if you had done that and your boss had said, "Oh, no, not another
feminist diatribe! We'll just anger our readers; put the wording back.
I can't believe you of all people fall for this stuff. The next thing,
you'll be writing 'she' instead of 'he' as a generic pronoun." Would you
have been less empowered? Or would you have felt empowered but "merely"
run into a road block (or a brick wall)?

This isn't easy, and I'm sure I like your rewording of the sentence idea
partly because I've done the equivalent many times.

What I described doesn't sound like empowerment according to the
dictionary, but it does sound like the sort of behavior I've heard
managers say they want (whether or not they follow up with matching
actions). I think I may be describing what I think the transactional
analysis folk call adult-adult interactions instead of parent-child

So, back to the topic.

  If empowerment is synonymous with authorization, then you're quite
  right--it's the manager's to give and to take away.

  A manager who complains about an unempowered workforce should
  realize it's all under their control to fix.

  We should perhaps consider going back to saying "authorization."
  Most people understand what that means, but empowerment seems to
  have acquired a fuzzier, more diffuse quality that obscures instead
  of clarifies.

  We should look for a simple word that describes the state of being
  in an adult-adult relationship with those with whom we are in
  hierarchical relationships (either up or down).


Bill Harris                                  3217 102nd Place SE
Facilitated Systems                          Everett, WA 98208 USA
http://facilitatedsystems.com/               phone: +1 425 337-5541

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