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  • Writer's pictureMark Bragg (Braggy)

The Empowerment Balance

Tom Peters, the great American writer on business management practices, best known for his book In Search of Excellence*, once had this to say on empowerment. 

"DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MUCH I HATE THE WORD "EMPOWERMENT? (I suppose you don't - fair enough.) 'Empowerment', as it has come to be used, mostly means that we (bosses) will allow them (workers) to do some stuff that used to be our holy prerogative. THAT'S WRONG. ALL WRONG. DIAMETRICALLY, ALL-BACKWARDS WRONG. Instead, I see us (bosses) begging them (talent) to give their all in exploring new places, better known to them than us. Okay?"

That was the 90’s.


The word empowerment emerged in the 60’s as a social and community movement focused on measures to help improve an individual’s personal responsibility providing them with the opportunity of self-determination and authority. It only began to be used in association with business in the 80’s and 90’s.

The business premise is that if you provide employees with the right resources and authority to act, they will be more motivated and engaged, subsequently improving the overall performance of the organisation. There have been some great strides made over the last thirty years in organizational behaviour as it relates to empowerment. It has become fundamental to sound leadership.  

Despite this, there are still leaders that on the one hand talk a good game, yet struggle to actually walk the talk. Just as critical and sometimes missed in the empowerment discussion is the responsibility of employees to choose to be empowered.

You CAN’T Empower Someone

A good friend and colleague recently made the point that you can’t empower someone, the best you can do is create an environment in which they can be empowered* 

What this means is there is something of a dual responsibility at play here, a balancing act. On the one hand leaders have to create a set of conditions conducive to empowering their people and on the other hand, employees have to accept the opportunity and make a clear choice to be empowered.

Let’s look at that balance.

The Leaders Responsibility

1. Be Clear on Expectations

I have this thing about expectations, it is so often missed, left grey to dangle in the wind. In my mind, the setting of expectations is the first discipline of sound leadership. A discussion based on the answers to two simple questions:

  • What do I expect from you?

  • What can you expect from me?

In the empowerment discussion, it is being clear on expected outcomes, levels of authority and the support the employee can expect from the leader. Critical here is how the Leader is going to interact with the employee going forward. What will that relationship look like?

2.    Provide resources.

Then there are the resources. What are you going to provide the employee with to be successful? Again, creating the right conditions for success. This is not just about money and equipment, it also relates to training, support and probably most importantly, access to the information required to be successful.

3.    Step away.

Perhaps the most important and toughest part for a lot of leaders is to step away. You have to give people the opportunity to do their job the way they want to do it, even if (god forbid) they do it differently to the way you would do it.

Work with them on establishing goals and strategy but leave the execution to them by ensuring they have the autonomy necessary to be successful. Delegation of authority is critical here. The best way to kill talent and employee motivation is to step in, take over and do it yourself.

4.    Keep the door open.

More than anything be there to support them. In many ways, your role is to clear the path, to help them be successful. The employee needs to feel comfortable coming to you if they have a problem. That they can trust you and seek guidance when it’s needed. Your role is simply to make them better and help them improve, not do their work and make decisions for them. 

The Employee’s Responsibility

1. Treat it like it's your.

Empowerment implies ownership. It means the project, strategy or team is now yours and with that comes responsibility. Although this seems straightforward, there is an important mind shift. As the word empowerment implies, as transference of power. Treat everything with all the care and attention of your own personal enterprise and brand. You Inc.

2.    Don’t be frightened to ask for help.

Although you now have added responsibility, perhaps additional pressure, you are not alone. Nobody ever achieved anything significant purely by themselves. Involve your team, reach out to mentors and colleagues and yes, your boss as well. Part of being responsible for an outcome is to draw on every resource you have at your disposal. Don’t be frightened to ask for help, ensuring you take people on the journey.

3.    Don't hide bad news.

The biggest danger in the empowerment balance is hiding bad news. Sure, there are some bosses that don’t like hearing bad news, but if they had a choice most reasonable leaders would want to know sooner rather than later. If there is one thing that can kill the level of trust required in the empowerment balance between an employ and the boss, hiding bad news is it.

4.    You have a right to be confident.

Finally, you have been given responsibility because of your unique talent. With that added level of accountability comes pressure to perform. Feeling that pressure and perhaps even doubting your own ability as a result is absolutely normal. Just do your best, play to your strengths and grab the opportunity with both hands. You have earned it.


Sometimes without knowing it, organizations and their leaders in not empowering their people, can deprive an entire enterprise of its greatest asset, the collective intelligence and talent of its people. Tapping into that resource has two dimensions.

Creating an environment in which people have an opportunity to be empowered and having that opportunity accepted.

* References

2. Janelle van de Velde: C-level Executive Director | Corporate Services | Global Operations | Change Leader | Company Secretary | GAICD | EMBA

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