Empowerment-what does it really mean?

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Having just read through a number of strategic plans I am surprised at the number of times the word empower or a derivative appears. We are an organisation that encourages empowered people; Our values are empowerment, learning, accountability, integrity. So what does this wonderful word empower mean?

Consulting the dictionary it states that the verb empower is to give someone official authority or the freedom to do something. The adjective empowering is defined as something that is empowering makes you more confident and makes you feel that you are in control of your life.

However in the work context the word empowered can mean different things to different people. Take for example a manager who from their perspective may want the staff to be
More proactive in their approach, take a greater level of responsibility, be more independent and look for solutions rather than problems, or contribute more. From the viewpoint of an employee empowerment can mean being allowed to take decisions on their own initiative, be allowed to get on with their job without interference or greater levels of autonomy.

On the face of it these viewpoints appear compatible but it is what happens in practice that counts. As with many things the devil is in the detail. Often organisations just say the words. In reality you are only empowered as long as you make decisions that are covered in the 200 page policy manual, or before you make a decision you must consult your manager. Empowerment can be scary for managers what happens if they go off on some wild tangent that is outside the plan, or maybe they will start doing things differently. It can also be scary for employees. Suppose they make an incorrect decision and management comes down like a ton of bricks.

Empowerment can help companies be far more effective but it does mean establishing clear guidelines for accountability, responsibility and authority. Managers need to spell out exactly the role and responsibility of each employee and what latitude they have in making decisions. It also means that managers have open up and share information so that employees have the correct knowledge and information on which to base decisions.

It is easy to write in strategic plans that you are or wish to empower your people. It is quite another to empower people in reality so that they can make decisions without constant management oversight. Establish clear guidelines for what you really mean by empowerment and let your people get on with what they were recruited to do.

Empowerment is not just about words it takes action to achieve.



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