Empowerment: mechanistic or organic?

hands reaching free to useAs Todd mentioned last week, accountability and commitment are becoming buzzwords that can be hard to define.  I’d like to add one more to the mix: empowerment. We’ve all heard that empowering people is important for building accountability and commitment, but it’s harder to know what that actually looks like.

In his book, Deep Change, Robert Quinn discussed four dimensions of empowerment:

  1. People have a sense of meaning in their work.
  2. People feel confident about their ability to do the work.
  3. People believe they are free to choose how to do the work.
  4. People believe they have the ability to impact the context in which the work is accomplished.

Given these dimensions, Quinn proposed two views of empowerment. First, a mechanistic view approaches empowerment as a leader-driven activity. Leaders are encouraged to develop clear visions and plans; to provide required information and resources; to enable decision-making at the right level of the organization; and to encourage continual improvement of processes.  He says this version of empowerment is about “clarity, delegation, control, and accountability.”

While these activities are all necessary parts of leadership, he contrasts them with an organic view of empowerment.  In this view leaders start with the needs of the people involved; model integrity by taking risks and exposing difficult issues; encourage initiative; and foster teamwork. Empowerment is about “risk, growth, trust, and teamwork.”

This view of empowerment can feel threatening. Risk and trust are complex and challenging aspects of leadership. It also implies a loss of control – as Quinn notes, empowerment is not something leaders can do for people. We can only create an environment where people are willing and able to empower themselves.

Quinn states that “whereas nearly everyone wants to be empowered by their boss, fewer people are comfortable with the idea of empowering their subordinates”?  Do you agree?  How have you created an empowering environment?

Dee Anne Bonebright




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