Empowerment – From Both Sides Now

July 25th, 2012 | 2 Comments


After learning that his staff felt micromanaged, Bill decided to become a more empowering leader. He wanted his team members to make the decisions for their projects. Shortly after announcing this change, one of his project leaders came to his office asking him “Which path should we take on this project? I don’t want to make an expensive error.” Bill was stunned. This project leader had been the most vocal advocate for making his own decisions. Bill wondered, “Why didn’t he seize the reins and make his own decision? What was holding him back?”


Empowerment can never just be given or taken. It needs to emerge from an agreement between the leader and the employee. It requires the full participation and commitment from both.

Last month we looked at empowerment from the leader’s perspective, delineating its benefits and challenges. In this blog we’ll examine it from the employee side.

On the surface, empowerment appears to offer nothing but benefits for employees. They have opportunities to make decisions, to feel more autonomous, to have more control, and to make a greater impact. Indeed, when people act empowered they feel more motivated, engaged, satisfied, and even physically healthier. As they use more of their judgment and abilities, their self-confidence grows. They become more productive, less cynical and less likely to quit.[i]

People recognize these benefits and say they want more of empowerment. In numerous interviews and surveys, people report that they want more autonomy, more trust in their judgment, more say in decision making, and less micromanagement. So why does empowerment sometimes falter?

One reason is that taking responsibility can be a double edged sword. On one hand it provides a sense of ownership, maturity, confidence, optimism and hope. On the other, people may feel the stress that accompanies responsibility. They may worry about doing the right thing or about undesired outcomes.  They become more like parents worrying about making the right decision, and less like children feeling carefree but powerless. A study of nurses in Southeast Asia found that empowered nurses had moderate levels of work stress.[ii]

This responsibility / stress phenomenon seems to be a major barrier.  Let’s dig into it. When we make a decision we never know what the outcome will be. There is a risk that things could turn out great or could lead to a problem. So it is natural that a sense of uncertainty or fear accompanies decision making. “If I give the customer this, will it cost the organization too much? and will I get criticized?” “If I choose this option, what if it turns out wrong?”

Some people may experience this stress and choose to avoid taking  responsibility. When encountering decisions with real risk, they may choose to avoid the decision. They may go back to their manager and ask, “What should I do?”

The only antidote for this fear of decision making is experience and training. The more experienced a person is, the more likely they are to notice subtle cues that lead to good decisions, and the more familiar they become with the impact of different types of decisions. A good way to gain this experience and learning is to take on gradually more difficult decisions; and to try to learn from each one. Debriefing after the decision can give the person chance to relive their thought process, reflect on their decision and assess its outcome. This debriefing speeds up learning and therefore the ability to make good decisions.

Another barrier to empowerment is additional work. Implementing one’s idea or going to bat for a customer often involves doing extra labor and taking extra time. People subconsciously compare the effort of the additional work to the rewards of autonomy and positive impact. Employees, sometimes with the help of their managers, can tip the scales toward empowerment by imagining the satisfaction they will feel after they have taken responsibility.


Empowerment is beneficial, but not easy. To reap the benefits, employees need to prepare themselves for a bit more risk and responsibility. Similarly, leaders need to accept their own sense of risk and loss of control. When both see the situation clearly they can step onto the empowerment escalator, which will lead them to higher performance, professional growth and career satisfaction.

[i] Luthans, F., Youssef, C. & Avolio, B. (2006). Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Competitive Edge.OxfordUniversity Press.

 [ii] Journal of Clinical Nursing. 2008 Nov;17(22):3050-8.


2 Responses to “Empowerment – From Both Sides Now”

  1. Sheryl Spanier wrote:

    As always your analysis is thorough, thoughtful and very actionable. You have done a wonderful job of clearly outlining the barriers to empowerment that both manager and report need to take responsibility for. In addition, you have articulated the thought processes that might impede a successful empowerment initiative. Much to consider and very helpful article. Thank you, Sheryl

  2. Anne Houle wrote:

    One more thing pops to mind as I read the scenario that Dan has outlined. I believe that conditions need to be right in an organization, or at least in the sub-culture of the group one is working in, in order to experiment with decision making. It comes down to having the kind of relationshionship with one’s manager, anchored in trust, that gives the direct report a feeling of safety. One must feel safe enough to 1) admit they don’t know the answer and 2) if/when they do make a mistake, they won’t lose the support of their manager. The manager has to believe in them and stay the course. Great topic–thanks Dan!