How do you empower? LO26200

From: Peggy Stuart (
Date: 02/23/01

Replying to LO26199 --

Hi Bill:

Thanks for the very interesting post! I am learning lots as I go here, so
(1) thanks for the learning opportunity. I think this is a vital question
and (2) be prepared in case I reverse my position. :-)

"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 don't think it should ... I think you are quite correct in your earlier
statement that empowerment comes from within. We can "empower" ourselves
in that we can "authorize" ourselves to be autonomous or to self-govern
our activities. As such, on that dimension empowerment is linked to
initiative, which is in turn linked to committment vs. comliance. So to
me, that is part of the equation of "true empowerment."

"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 am a stickler for using the right terms at the right times. If a leader
speaks of wanting a "more empowered workforce" and they therefore "seek
ways to get it". What exactly are they speaking of and what benefits do
they want? From your statements, I would think they are looking for a
workforce that will take the initiative to do what needs to be done
without being told, so that they - the leaders - are free to dedicate
their efforts to other areas. The output, or benefit, of this process
could be operational flexibility, decrease of leaders' workload, etc. (Are
they really speaking of wanting their employees to committ rather than

So how would leaders best accomplish this? This then becomes a part of a
bigger picture regarding leadership. Communicate what is needed (not
wanted) using the appropriate language. Does that then mean leaders get
what they want? No. This is only part of the equation leading to "true

Leader's can make their employees formally accountable to make those
changes when and if needed. However, the actions of defining what is
needed and when and subsequently making a person accountable becomes an
action of decentralization. I say that because that action is focussing on
the desired requirements of that position rather than the person,
therefore this action is happening on the systems-level. The only person
(people) that can evaluate the desired requirements of a person is that
person's supervisor (or co-worker, etc. Whoever works closest with the
person in question, which means empowerment can be lateral and well as

As such, leaders' responsibilities in the act of empowerment is to send
the message that they encourage it. That means that leaders will not go to
a person "what do you mean you passed that ... " decision-making process
"... to so-and-so? That's your job, not theirs!"

"I do believe managers bear some responsibility for this by their actions,
and I think that sort of thing has been covered well elsewhere."

Where? I tried to find 'coempowerment' on this listserv, but couldn't dig
it up. :-( I think coempowerment would speak of where I am going ...

"I also thing managees (those being managed) bear some responsibility, as
in your example:

> 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

"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."

No, he wasn't the editor. I passed him a copy out of courtesy as he was my
supervisor and should know what I was up to; know of the activities that
were taking me away from other things he wanted done. He did not even need
to see the copy before it went to the CEO for onward transmission.
(Incidentally, the phrase "woman and men" was a phrase the CEO regularly
used) So I did not have carte blanche in regards to the final product, nor
should I have had! But my supervisor was not accountable for that process;
it was not part of his job to critique the article. I was empowered by the
CEO to do this on his behalf, it was up to him to make any critiques.

However, by my supervisor's actions, he sent the message that he did not
trust my writing ability nor trust my judgement. That sent a signal to me
that negatively impacted my future dealings with him e.g. I was not as
courteous to my supervisor in the future when empowered by the CEO (I made
sure I did not pass him a copy of an article until after the CEO had
approved it!)

Regardless of the details, what resulted was that I didn't trust my
supervisor anymore, to trust me, to believe in me, etc. As such, it became
difficult for him to pass me learning opportunities in the future without
that trust. That action (and of course many more ... this situation did
not happen solely from that isolated incident) impacted my work there,
made me feel unsupported, etc. It put me in a box defined solely by my job
description. It was really quite sad.

So the relationship between supervisor and employee is vital for
empowerment. There has to be trust flowing both ways.

So how does this fit in with LOs? Why would a LO want employees to be
empowered? I think it has to do with the intimacy of the relationship
between supervisor and employee, and the learning opportunities and
capacity for change that ensues from this relationship. I think that trust
between supervisor and employee will encourage learning opportunities,
allow both the employee and supervisor to venture out of the boxes imposed
on them by their job description, nature of work, etc. I think that
organizations with people having high levels of initiative will see and
make change before their leaders are aware of it, which increases the
organization's capacity for change.

"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)?"

If that situation would have happened to me now, I can only say I would
not allowed myself to be a victim. I would have sat my supervisor down,
discussed the issue of trust, and mediated my way out of a situation that
was negatively impacting me, the work I was doing, and the learning
opportunities I could have availed myself of to do even "better" work, be
a "better" person, etc. However, I was not "empowered" to do this at that
point in time. Another piece to the equation leading to "true empowerment"
Self-confidence, or a sense of personal power.

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

Centralizing a decision-making process that was previously decentralized
and disempowering an employee should both be very carefully done. Both
could have lasting impacts on the employee(s) that these activities

However, one is easier done than the other. At least when you centralize,
it does not have to appear as personal as if a supervisor said to her or
his employee "I know I gave that to you to do, but I take back over/need
to do it myself now." Or reading between the lines "I don't have faith in
you that you can do this as well as I can ANYMORE."

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

I hesitate on agreeing with that one ... Empowerment is not something you
can "fix". It, to me, is an intimate and equal relationship between
supervisor and employee. However, perhaps you are using the term 'manager'
as I am using 'supervisor'. In that case, yes, I would agree, there are
plans of actions that could lead to empowerment. A manager/supervisor may
be able to empower her or his employees by concentrating on the
relationships she or he has with them. If trust or initiative is found to
be lacking, then she or he does have a certain avenues of action.

"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)."

I don't know ... I think that we are collectively getting to point where
we can understand clearly what empowerment is, at least on this listserv
we are. :-)

However, maybe the term "empowerment" is like the term "learning
organization" It is best defined in context to the organization, its
culture, and its needs.

Maybe the recommendation ensuing from these e-mails would be to open a
dialogue with all employees about what empowerment is, and what ensuing
benefits are best in regards to the needs of the organization, (personal
initiative, trust, flexibility, capacity for change, etc.). This dialogue
process could come up with the collective frame of reference needed,
regardless of what word was eventually agreed upon as a descriptor.




Peggy Stuart <>

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