People don’t want to be empowered

I hate the word “empowerment.”

Everyone loves to preach about the virtues of empowering employees to neutralize disengagement and lack of accountability. But, if empowerment is so magical, why is employee disengagement on the rise?

For starters, empowerment is an intrinsic state of being. It’s not something you can provide.

When employees start a new job, they are fully engaged and empowered. But, then organizations start flooding them with rules, policies, hierarchies that limit people.

Outdated workplace cultures strip power and energy away from employees (even top-performers).

People are not powerless — they don’t need to be empowered. They need to be liberated.

The problem with empowering people

“The notion of empowerment presumes that the organization has the power and benevolently ladles some of it into the waiting bowls of grateful employees. That’s just a slightly more civilized form of control.” — Daniel Pink

“Empowerment” means “giving power to someone;” to make someone stronger and more confident.

This notion creates an uneven relationship. It turns managers into the ones who have the power to make subordinates more confident. I don’t buy into the idea that leaders are powerful, and the rest powerless.

Empowerment also implies benevolence — managers are kind and generous enough to share their power.

The word “empowerment” is a trap. It’s a beautified way of saying “delegation” that boosts the manager’s ego.

People don’t need permission to do great work. They don’t need their bosses to make things happen. Employees already have the power they need.

Power is an illusion that resides wherever we want it to. The idea of empowerment presumes that bosses own the power. And that it’s something they can give, not something that resides within each person.

Empowerment is deceiving. Leaders feel they empower their teams by inspiring. Yet, they fail to remove the barriers for people to thrive. Most teams lack real authority to make decisions.

Autonomy, contrary to power, provides employees with a sense of collective ownership. They want to make the organization grow.

Forget Empowerment. Encourage Autonomy Instead.

Autonomy is the freedom to act, to make our own choices. Empowerment is the granting of political, social, or economic power.

Empowerment operates on the idea of external motivation. Bosses (wrongly) believe they must motivate their teams. Autonomy, on the other hand, is enabling the most powerful type of motivation: intrinsic.

In Drive, Daniel Pink explains how our brains are wired to self-direct. We resist being told what to do because we want to be in control. Motivation 3.0 requires having a clear purpose, mastery, and, of course, autonomy.

Giving people more control over their tasks makes an organization more attractive. One study found that people are two and a half times more likely to take a job that gives them more autonomy than one that gives them more influence.

Studies show that autonomy makes workers more satisfied with their jobs and raises productivity. It also increases accountability and engagement.

Promoting autonomy is much more useful than “empowering people.” But, autonomy alone is not enough. People also need authority.

How to Enable Autonomy & Authority

“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” — Grace Hopper.

Autonomy is derived from authority. But, it doesn’t work the other way around, though. As I consultant, I see this way too often: many managers have formal authority but lack the autonomy to make decisions.

Distributed authority and autonomy are crucial to make organizations more agile. However, workplace culture should give people power, not their bosses.

Autonomy leverages collective intelligence. When people feel in charge, they are more open to collaborating.

As Alden Mills explains on Unstoppable Teams, we are all different but share three things:

•The will to survive danger

•An ego-driven desire for personal gain

• A soul-driven willingness to be a part of something greater than ourselves

When teams feel safe, they can focus on the greater good.

As Mills wrote, “To lead is to let go. People want to understand a vision, a ‘why’ that inspires them, and they want to be a part of the solution that is greater than themselves.”
Decision-making rights should lie with those closest to the information or the problem owner, not the source of power. Give employees explicit authority to make decisions based on their roles and accountabilities.

Distributing authority is not a binary thing, though. There are various shades of gray between a top-down organization and a decentralized one.

Delegation Poker is a fun way to experiment with different ways of delegating authority. Your team can understand the different ways of making decisions and choose when to apply each.

Similarly, Decider is a conversational bot that helps explore the different decision-making models. It provides insights on which can work best depending on the problem to solve.

There’s no such thing as a perfect decision-making model. Each has pros and cons. To distribute authority is crucial, regardless if you use consent, an advisory process, or a democratic approach.

“To enable lower organizational levels to make decisions, we need to give them authority, information, and practice. Without practice and the freedom to fail upon occasion, they will not take control of these decisions.” — Don Reinertsen

Autonomy must be enabled. Organizations must provide psychological safety, distributed authority, and radical transparency for teams to make decisions. But, as Don Reinertsen points out, people need to practice and learn.

Leaders don’t have all the answers. To solve complex problems, organizations need all voices. Develop a culture that encourages people to contribute, collaborate, and take ownership.

Stop trying to empower your employees. People will resent being treated like children. Try liberating them instead. Create a culture that makes them feel safe and autonomous.

This article first appeared on Medium.