Empowerment, Not So Fast LO26317

From: John P. Dentico, Ed. D. (jdentico@adnc.com)
Date: 03/08/01

Replying to LO26308 --

This is from something I wrote two years ago about empowerment.

Argyris, Charles Handy and others have written about the inherent
contradiction in empowerment. "IF power can be bestowed it can also be
taken away and represents no power at all. See Argyris Forbes Magazine
October 98 or 99 I think. Article Empowerment: The emporers new clothes.
In fact here it is.

I would suggest we get away from empowerment and start to think of
subsidiarity. In subsidiarity, power already resides in the lowest part
of the organization. Here is a quote from something I wrote two years ago,
it tries to put empowerment into a metaphorical content and explain it a
bit more. Let me know what you think of this.

Imagine, for a moment, you are the CEO of a middle-size company employing
about 200 people. In the morning after arriving at work, you get behind a
large cart filled with 200 bottles of water, and you go down the hall
distributing these bottles to each and every employee. Once all the
bottles are distributed, you return to your office. After some time, you
begin to get thirsty so you return to one of the employees, see the water
bottle, pick it up and take a drink. You don^t necessarily ask for
permission, you just do it. The employee becomes a bit perturbed because
he or she thought the bottle was his/hers to use. But, of course, as CEO
you dispensed the bottles, and as far as you are concerned the bottles are
still yours. The word gets around to the rest of the company, and you
begin to notice that either the people drink the water right away (called
it is better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission), decide to
leave the bottle alone, or wait for some direction about how much they can
drink. The reason for this is they anticipate your unannounced arrival to
reclaim the bottle.

Instead of water in the bottle imagine that there is another mixture
called power in them. If your name is Emmett or Emily, you can understand
why the employees referred to your morning distribution of power bottles
as "EM powers us." This little story provides the basic metaphor which
helps us understand the act of empowerment. In essence, the leader gives
followers power to perform their organizational tasks. The employee can
act but never really knows when the person in authority might come back to
get the bottle, that is take back the power, or when the leader might tell
the follower it is OK to take a drink, that is use the power.

Empowerment is a movement which has received wide support and endorsement as
a transmutation of power from the highest to the lowest organizational
levels. It is represented as a true diffusion and trust-building practice
that gives both responsibility and authority to people throughout
organizations. Yet for all its hype, empowerment remains a hollow practice
and a failure in its ability to deliver what it has promised. Argyris
explains this paradox:
Thus, despite all the best efforts that have gone into fostering
empowerment, it remains very much like the emperor^s new clothes: we praise
it loudly in public and ask ourselves privately why we can^t see it. There
has been no transformation in the workforce, and there has been no sweeping
metamorphosis. (Argyris, 1998, p. 3)
Political philosopher Charles Handy provided an explanation for the
phenomena which Argyris described. Handy^s comments are summarized by
Professor Nancy Dixon.
Empowerment assumes that, by right, power resides in the corporate office
and can therefore be bestowed upon organizational members. One of the
reasons empowerment has been so difficult to implement is that it is
inherently contradictory. If power is bestowed, it can also be withdrawn
and is therefore no power at all; it is at best benevolence, at worst
manipulation. A unit or individual has power only if it is their right to
keep the power or to give it away. (Dixon, 1994, p. 131)

Pulling the mask from empowerment, it is revealed as being from the same
industrial mindset, i.e., the leader bestows power only to withdraw it on
demand. Empowerment represents an industrial approach to leadership.
Leadership derives from the top and is dispensed temporarily and as
required. People who are empowered find themselves in a contract of
inconsistency, one which provides them control over their destinies at one
time and strict compliance to the leader^s wishes at others. Argyris again
described the psychology of the people in this predicament.

It is a fundamental truth of human nature and psychology that the less power
people have to shape their lives, the less commitment they will have. When,
for example, management single-handedly defines work conditions for
employees the employees will almost certainly be externally committed. That
commitment is external because all that is left for employees to do is what
is expected of them. The employees will not feel responsible for the way
the situation itself is defined. How can they? They did not do the
defining. (Argyris, 1998, p. 99-100)
For many, empowerment was the answer to the dilemma of diffusing power from
those who traditionally held the highest positions in the hierarchy to those
in the lowest points in an organization. In practice, it has not solved the

In this regard an expression of power must be made whereby people possess a
freedom and innate right to contribute or retain their individual sense of
power. It is, after all, part of what it means to be a member of a
democratic society. Handy provided us with an interpretation of power which
supports a democratic notion and the tenets of collaborative leadership. He
does this by explaining subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity means that power is located at the corporation^s lowest point.
It assumes that power naturally resides at this level and that it can only
be relinquished to a central body through a contractual agreement. The
center governs only with the consent of the governed. Moreover, that
consent is established within the framework of a constitution which sets the
boundaries of power and responsibility (Handy, 1992, p. 63)

During the 1960s, a familiar phrase was coined during the civil rights
movement- "Power to the People." Subsidiarity means that the people
have had and retain the power to be influenced, persuaded or moved to
action. It is their choice and only they can decide to be motivated from
quiescence to action when they have become dissatisfied and desire to make

Now I know people are going to come back and say well empowerment means
something different to me. Well if one looks at the "experts" they seem to
have the same idea of what it means. I simply say lets not make a silk purse
out of a sow's ear.

See ya

John P. Dentico, Ed. D.
LeadSimm Connects Leadership Development With Reality . . . Because Reality
P.O. Box 6305
San Diego, CA 92166-0305
Ph. 619-300-3080 Office
Fax. 619-523-3068


"John P. Dentico, Ed. D." <jdentico@adnc.com>

Learning-org -- Hosted by Rick Karash <Richard@Karash.com> Public Dialog on Learning Organizations -- <http://www.learning-org.com>

"Learning-org" and the format of our message identifiers (LO1234, etc.) are trademarks of Richard Karash.