That’s what we all want, right? Managers should empower their teams. Individual contributors should be empowered to design the things they’re responsible for. That sounds right, but is it? When I hear about people being “empowered” I start to wonder. Before you think I’m going full-on Taylorism on you, think about the word empower.
- to give power or authority to; authorize, especially by legal or official means:
I empowered my agent to make the deal for me. The local ordinance empowers the board of health to close unsanitary restaurants.
- to enable or permit:
Wealth empowered him to live a comfortable life.
Giving power, authorizing, permitting. Is that really what you want? It seems kind of backwards to me. We’ve all got roles and responsibilities. We’ve been put in them because people have made the conscious decision that we can execute the roles and meet the responsibilities. But if you have to be empowered to do something, what was the situation before you were empowered? Did you have responsibility without authority? Were you overly constrained?
Don’t get me wrong. There are many times where being empowered is the right thing to do. Delegating decision authority to someone that normally wouldn't have it can have lots of benefits. The person with the temporary authority gets to stretch and learn. The person delegating frees up time to work on something else. And if you empower the right person the decision will get made closer to the action and with more context. Wins all around.
But when it comes to empowering a team or individual to do their job, I think using the term “empower” is wrong. It sends the wrong message. It says “This isn’t really your job. Normally you should do what you’re told, but in this case I’m giving you special permission to do more.” It implies that the person doing the empowering has all the power and is relinquishing it.
I believe that’s almost always not the case. When someone tells you that you’re empowered to do your job, what they really mean is that your job includes making a set of decisions, and you should do your job, making all of the decisions that are required. But the choice of words matter. It sends a message. And we should all be careful of the message we’re sending.
So next time you feel the urge to use the term “empower”, think about what message you’re trying to send. If you’re delegating, then empower away. If, on the other hand, you are trying to encourage someone to use the authority they already have, be explicit. Say something more like “What do you think we should do? It’s always been up to you.”