Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

The Problem With Empowerment

tarsiers little animals with buggy eyesThe concept of empowerment is discussed by many supervisors, managers and executives as though it is their main approach to directing and motivating employees–and sometimes with a bit of arrogance about it: “I hereby send you forth to do things you think would be good to do. Isn’t it impressive that I’m showing confidence in you low-level employees?”

The reality is that telling employees they are empowered (authorized) to make decisions about their work is not always wise or even truthful. Doing so without guidelines or any requirement for supervisory or managerial approval can lead to serious problems. On the other hand, telling employees they are empowered, then frequently not approving their recommended actions, creates feelings that they were lied to about their authority. Perhaps the solution is to be sure everyone involved is defining and applying empowerment in the same way.

1. Are there requirements, limitations, restrictions, preferences or criteria for decisions and actions? If so, employees do not have carte blanche (full discretionary power). Let them know their limitations ahead of time. The most reasonable one is that employees must get approval from a supervisor before stopping one task to work on something preferred by the employee or before implementing a change in established procedures, allocating organizational resources or doing anything that could have an effect on the reputation or effectiveness of the organization.

Another criteria to consider: Will it be OK if the employee decides to not do something or to stop doing something or is empowerment only about innovation and improvement?

2. Is the employee trained, experienced and mentally and emotionally ready to be given authority over important decisions–and to accept responsibility for bad results just as they are to accept compliments for good results? One of the requirements for using power effectively is knowing the likely results of one’s actions. Not all supervisors, managers and executives are as knowledgeable as they should be, but they usually have a better idea of the Big Picture than the average employee who has not had the opportunity to see all of it.

That is another reason for limitations and requirements: You can bet the supervisor and manager will be held responsible for the work of employees, even when there is an ill-judged, empowered action.  It would be like a football team owner telling players they are empowered to develop their own plays, then firing coaches when the plays don’t work. (Not a great analogy, but you get the idea.)

3. Is the word empowerment merely a way to encourage self-confidence, professional development and a feeling of belonging to the group or the organization? Many executives tell employees they are empowered, as a way to say that everyone is important and should look for ways to feel good about themselves and their work. If an employee can only suggest or propose, they really have no power over anything except their own attitudes and performance.

The bottom line: Each of us have the power to improve our work quality and quantity.

*We have the power to be a positive addition to the workplace, in spite of reasons to feel otherwise.
*We have the power to carefully consider our own work and suggest improvements in processes and procedures, then accept the yes or no about it.
*We have the power to be and do many things, without waiting to be told we are empowered.

Managers and supervisors should add to each employee’s feelings of strength and accomplishment by complimenting good work and giving correction and guidance for improvement. They should communicate the message that everyone can be a valued contributor by doing their work to a high standard while continuously seeking to improve their knowledge and skills.

Every employee, at every level, can be powerfully effective and powerfully proud of what they have achieved–a worthy goal for any organization, group or individual.                          

September 17th, 2016 Posted by | Life and Work, Supervision and Management | 3 comments


  1. Welcome back to your website. When we had a two day class about this topic, even the instructors said just about what you said…there needs to be clear guidelines or there will be chaos. But every time we gave an example of a guideline they said it would turn power and initiative off. The only guideline they agreed to was that if an employee develops a more efficient way to do a process it has to include the same data and not change processes for any other employees without their agreement. Nothing new there.

    Comment by RLW | September 22, 2016

  2. I think empowerment is at least a way to try to offset managers who micromanage everything you do. When a company makes empowerment part of their values it helps curb some of that.

    Comment by cruzn1988 | September 23, 2016

  3. She’s baaack! A lot of things have changed here, so you should come by to say hello and check it out.

    Any time we have a question about how to do something, our current manager (NOT P.K.) says she’s empowered us to do it, so we should do it. One of the techs asked a supplier to come in and do some training. When the manager found out, she went on and on about why that was done without her permission and the tech said, “You empowered me so I thought I would get in trouble if I didn’t set it up, like I got in trouble a couple of weeks ago.”

    Since then she has put out a reminder to talk to her before setting up training or buying anything. Guess what I asked her about three weeks ago? Making a purchase. 🙂

    Comment by Mike | September 23, 2016

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