The answer always seems to be…

images…empowerment! But what does that even mean?

As usual, I thought I’d better get myself on firm ground by looking the word up in the dictionary. Here’s what I get:

Empower: Give (someone) the authority or power to do something.” (Oxford Dictionary)

And why aren’t ‘they’ (or, depending on your viewpoint, ‘we’) empowered in the first place? Here’s an eye-opening quote from John Seddon:

“Empowerment is a pre-occupation of command-and-control managers, who:

  • design systems that dis-empower people…;
  • …notice the problem and send people on ’empowerment’ programmes;
  • …and then put them back in a system that…”

i.e. it is a merry-go-round in which people’s hopes are raised (often offsite by a cool and groovy external training company) about the wonders of empowerment…and then they get plugged back into their old reality!

The instruments of a ‘command and control’ system dis-empower people. Leaders can ‘happy talk’* about empowerment and even provide training, tools and (worse) incentives to encourage empowerment….but, if the underlying management system remains the same, they are mostly wasting their time. (* if you’ve not heard this ‘happy talk’ phrase before I provide an explanation at the bottom of this post).

Saying ‘you are empowered’ and meaning it are two very different things:

Here’s a lovely quote I came across recently on a Lean Thinking blog that I follow:

Leader:     “I want my employees to feel empowered.”

Counsel:     “You realise empowerment means your employees start making decisions, right?”

Leader:     “Oh… I want them to feel empowered. I didn’t say I wanted them to be empowered.”

(Mardig Sheridan)

The main reason why people aren’t empowered is because of the environment they work within, not because they don’t want to be!

You can’t simply move to an empowered culture:

It’s easy (and usual) to want the result…but simply wanting it (as in ‘Stating the obvious’) doesn’t magically deliver it.

There are two risks for ‘leaders’ who have always told ‘their’ people what to do (via the likes of transformation programmes, change projects and cascaded personal objectives) when they tell everyone that they should feel empowered:

  • The leader stands back completely: this will create a void in which people won’t know what to do…which will end up with those same ‘leaders’ saying “well that didn’t work, I’d better take control again.”


  • The leader continues to tell them what to do: creating a battle between leader and worker and much resentment and disbelief. And just to spell it out, you are telling them what to do by default if you simply say ‘no’ to everything they suggest or request permission to experiment with.

You can’t just say ‘you are empowered’ – you have to create the environment to make it happen! So how do we go about truly creating an environment in which people are genuinely empowered?

There’s a great book by David Marquet on this called ‘Turn your ship around’. It relates to his time as Captain of a US Navy Nuclear submarine. There’s also a really nice 10 min. animated version enabling you to quickly watch and get the gist. I recommend you watch it right now.

…so, what is needed is:

  • clarity of purpose (of the system in which the people operate), which
    • must be from the customers point of view; and
    • is NOT anything like ‘to implement xyz’ – that’s a dictated solution;
  • the building of your people’s competence;
    • which means far more than just knowing their basic job…it includes them understanding the system in which they operate and the likely effects of their decisions towards it purpose
  • the definition of capability measures (against purpose), and the ongoing transparency of this critical information to those operating the system; and
  • the removal of the barriers that define ‘the old way’ (most of my other posts explain what these are so I won’t repeat myself)

Leadership and empowerment

A reminder of three types of leaders:

“There are three kinds of leaders. Those that tell you what to do. Those that allow you to do what you want. And ‘Lean’ [Systems Thinking] leaders that come down to the work and help you figure it out.” (John Shook)

I hope you can see the cause and effect relationship between leadership and empowerment…it is only the 3rd style of leadership that is meaningful. This is true coaching through an ongoing back-and-forth dialogue between mentor and mentee.

It is only through true leadership (which includes trust, support and humility) that an organisation’s people can become empowered.

But isn’t it simply about hiring the right people?

A quote to finish on:

“Don’t bother trying to hire positive people only to give them crappy jobs and a line of bullshit about empowerment. If you are serious about reaping the benefits of an empowered workforce, make sure you are committed to providing good jobs, fair policies, and remarkable leadership, then go hire good folks and invite them to partner with you to continuously improve your workplace. (Bret L Simmons)


‘Happy Talk’ (Pascal Dennis):

“I remember the first time I attended a leadership conference at [my organisation] about three years ago. I walked away from the event really frustrated with leadership because the messages they shared seemed so disconnected from the reality of the work I was doing each day.

You know the type of event: leaders standing up confidently in front of their peers throwing around buzz words and all the ‘right answers’. What Pascal Dennis refers to as ‘the happy talk’.

Basically we got told what we wanted to hear as opposed to what we really needed to hear. It’s a lot harder to talk about problems and deliver disturbing news than to talk about everything that is going great.” (

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