Strong Word with Weak Foundation Translates into Doomed Program

Posted by Kristin Arnold on May 3, 2009

I was sitting in a hotel lobby when a waiter came over to take my order.  I noticed he had a large button pinned to his shirt emblazoned with the words “I AM EMPOWERED.”  I asked him, “What are you empowered to do?”  He quickly replied, “I dunno.  They make us wear this.”

Although empowerment is a contemporary buzzword, the term “empower” is not new, having arisen in the mid-17th century with the legalistic meaning “to invest with authority; authorize.”  Shortly thereafter, it began to be used generally to mean “enable or permit.”  Its modern use originated with the civil rights movement which sought “political empowerment.”  The word was then adopted by the women’s movement and then even more generally to connote being in more control of one’s own destiny.

I just hate to see a perfectly good word be bandied about indiscriminately.  When using the term “empowerment,” management has given specific authority to a person to make certain decisions.  It is not unbounded power to do whatever is necessary whenever one chooses.  Typically, empowerment comes in three forms:

Structured. Each individual or job title has been given a set of do’s and don’ts – limits on what they can or cannot do, that is broader than usual.  For example, if you have a dissatisfied customer, you are empowered to return the item to stock and credit the customer for the amount purchased.  If the customer wants further remuneration, you are not empowered and must get a decision from your manager.

Philosophical. A set of codified rules that guide employee behavior.  For example, one company uses the following as their “definition of empowerment”: 1) Take care of the customer, 2) Use the system, 3) If the system does not take care of the customer, escalate to management, 4) Management to take care of the customer (see rule 1), 5) Reevaluate empowerment boundaries.  Everyone agreed that no one could get into trouble for following these rules.  People who wanted to get promoted and recognized should follow these rules as well.

Adult Rule. We treat employees like capable adults, giving them license to use their minds and judgment within the scope of their responsibilities.  In my experience, this is the toughest and most dangerous form of empowerment, since it leaves a great deal of room for interpretation and can be seen as “abandonment” by some.

For any empowerment program to survive, the employees must know what empowerment is, know what is acceptable and non-acceptable behaviors under the definition, and receive constant feedback and evaluation of the boundaries and the decisions made.

Question:  How do you empower your team members?

More on this topic:

Empower the Team

Empowerment — The Fuel of the Future

Team Dynamics and Team Empowerment in Health Care Organizations

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