Empowerment continues to be the word most often used to indicate that we trust our people to make their own decisions, handle their own work, and do what’s best for the organization. But all too often, empowerment is a hollow promise. And remarkably often, it appears not to work at all: bad decisions get made; no decisions get made; micromanagers still micromanage.

Consider two examples of the problems that can accompany empowerment in all kinds of organizations, be they large or small, for-profit or not-for-profit, and with or without training programs and human resources departments.

The Opening: A senior exec decides that “we’re going to empower people” to not have to check with their management chain for every decision. The intention is to be both more effective and efficient — while conducting the work correctly. In preparation for this change, procedures have to be flowcharted, decisions must be treed or tabled, and customer conversations are scripted right down to a fare-thee-well. The Shutdown: But sometime after the empowerment initiative is implemented, the exec notices that people are acting like automatons, and wants to know what happened to creativity and innovation, and why employees are disengaged and customers aren’t happier. How could things have gotten worse when “we empowered them”? The typical assumption is that they must be the wrong people.     The Opening: Some manager at any level, with or without explicit organizational support, decides to work “hands off,” so that the employees who are one level down (and/or the level below that) can make real decisions and take real responsibility. The Shutdown: Then a screw-up occurs — either of the garden variety or on an existential threat level. Fearful that things will get worse, or that there will be trouble from “the powers that be,” the manager who declared “hands off” slams right back down on employees and starts making every single decision, down to ridiculously small details, as if no one else can be trusted ever again.

Empowerment is supposed to be a kind of official granting of authority or power, or a provision of support to promote autonomy and the confidence that goes with it. It doesn’t — or shouldn’t — mean giving subordinates permission to do exactly as they’ve been instructed and then criticizing or disciplining them when their best efforts lead to an undesirable outcome.

All that people learn through that kind of empowerment — empowerment in name only — is to be fearful, to hold back, and not to trust. None of which make for good conditions for business growth, customer care, or employee retention.

Making Empowerment Open and Honest

So if you really care about fostering greater employee competence and independence, instead of making announcements about empowerment, assemble some basic building blocks. Here’s how:

  • Choose employees who care about what you care about and have the skills you need or the capacity to learn them.
  • Model, teach, demonstrate, and discuss the basics of the work itself, the desired attitude, and the culture. Frequently.
  • Decide together, through discussion, what will get done and how you will collectively go about doing it.
  • Trust people to do their work.
  • Keep asking them how they view their work and what they need from you to get it done as well as possible.
  • When you hit a bump in the road, explain what works better — “This was not the best decision because a better decision would have taken into account A, B, and C” — and then keep going.

And if you’re not the manager, try a little self-empowerment. Learn more about the business. Question yourself. Think about what you’re doing, choose the best alternative, and do it. Be ready to explain how and why, and keep asking about the outcomes your management wants.