Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

Empowerment, a management fad?

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on April 19, 2010

A term that is used in many circumstances, is empowerment. It is used on so many occasions (both verbally and in written text), that I feel that it is misused more often than that it is used correctly. Or is it just a management fad, like BPR or TQM?

Empowerment refers to increasing the spiritual, political, social or economic strength of individuals and communities. It often involves the empowered developing confidence in their own capacities. […] Empowerment is the process that allows one to gain the knowledge, skill-sets and attitude needed to cope with the changing world and the circumstances in which one lives.

Ok, that’s what Wikipedia reads. The post of Mike Griffiths recently triggered (or empowered?) me to rethink empowerment. I can recall some papers I’ve read some years ago at the university about the subject. I also remember the debate it triggered there, because it can be interpreted in so many ways. Empowerment can refer to both individuals and communities. It refers to empowering a person or the collective. How does this work? Some questions come to mind here:

  • Is empowerment something that benefits only people without any power?
  • Who is powerful enough to empower others?
  • Who knows what is needed to empower someone? (perhaps only the unempowered)
  • Who or what benefits from empowerment?
  • Why is the term interpreted in so many ways?
  • Is empowerment of an individual or group a prerequisite for self-organization?

Without answering these questions immediately, I’d like to look at some real world examples where I think that empowerment is taking place. These places have some things in common. These places generally have a leader that leads the company quite different that the common leadership practices. They are not alone and unattainable at the top of the pyramid, they make sure that employees are involved not only in their own tasks and responsibilities, they know what their clients want and make sure that their employees know as well. These and some other characteristics are practices by only a few leaders, leaders that dare to make extraordinary decisions, that give control to their employees. Companies that have some similarities with these characteristics are Zappos and Semco, for example. These are companies that make quite ordinary products, have great results, but run their companies not like their competitors do. I’d like to call these companies examples of the real empowering companies. You just feel that you would like to work for them. That makes a company a great company, if you ask me.

To come back to some of the questions I posed earlier in this post, for example the question ‘Why is the term interpreted in so many ways?‘, I can say it depends heavily on who used the term. It can be the manager that tries to make others only work harder instead of really making them really more responsible for what they do, or it can be the employee that feels like not having enough resources or information he or she needs, or to feel more involved. If empowerment is a management fad, is hard to answer. I think it can easily be or become a management fad, but some core-principles that can be attributed to empowerment are really valuable and here to stay. These are universal, humane and part of the science of empowerment.

Another question I asked in this post is ‘Is empowerment of an individual or group a prerequisite for self-organization?‘. Perhaps it is. Empowered employees are able to manage themselves, both individually or in a collective. Maybe it is self-management, however, I prefer to make use of self-organization, for obvious reasons. In the problem statement I stated some time ago, I made an assumption by stating ‘how to […] empower employees for self-organization?‘. It seems this assumption still stands for me. To be continued…


5 Responses

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  1. sourcepov said, on April 21, 2010 at 10:30

    Hey Bas,

    Another great post –

    No, “empowerment” is not a fad, but like any popular concept that gets picked up by consultants and marketers, it’s meaning can get hi-jacked.

    I think the usage has increased in the Web 2.0 world because social media and related technology is driving a new sense of empowerment among the work force.

    Organizational culture is a huge factor here. In traditional silo-based organizations, power is closely held at the top, and not shared or delegated. Rules must be followed. True worker-inspired creativity is often thwarted. I heard a telling phrase today about “not getting too far out in front of the boss”. Charles Handy has a great deal to say about these cultural typologies, covered here

    ‘Collaboration’ is a related term gaining usage and buzz word status, for many of the same reasons. A collaborative approach involves the engagement of people to solve problems who are (or feel) empowered.

    I think these are positive trends, and important concepts. We’ve talked about the challenges of semantics here and elsewhere but in this case, I think the principles are strong, relevant, and worth the media overload.

    Always enjoy your insights, Bas – thanks again.


  2. Bas Reus said, on April 21, 2010 at 17:40

    Thanks for the comment Chris.

    Probably empowerment is not a fad, but an important concept. Gary Hamel posted some principles yesterday that are quite good starting points for how to enable empowerment, I think. He enumerates:

    – Decentralize wherever possible.
    – Break big units into small units.
    – Ensure transparency in decision-making.
    – Make leaders more accountable to the led.
    – Align rewards with contribution, rather than with power and position.
    – Substitute peer review for top-down review.
    – Steadily enlarge the scope of self-determination

    These principles are all mostly different from how things are in many (large) organziations. Starting with these principles are steps (or giant leaps) into the right direction.

    See his post here:

  3. John said, on April 22, 2010 at 16:23

    Interesting Post! On the topic of empowering employees you might want to see these video posts by Vineet nayar. “the irrelevant boss” and “Jack in the box”

  4. […] Bas Reus ponders this: […]

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