Quit Trying to Empower People.

It’s the new year!  Leaders of all shapes and sizes are resolving to “empower” their followers, team members, and employees this year.  These leaders somehow believe they can actually give people power, or sanction them with some sort of authority.

Of course, that assumes that the “empowerer” holds the power and/or has the formal authorization to vest people with authority all by him or herself.  Such a view of empowerment relies on a bureaucratic system, one in which rules and offices and hierarchy define the system’s interactions.  Empowerment starts at the top of an organization and then trickle its way down.  The leadership team empowers those under them, who empower those beneath them, and so on.  In this view, empowerment is something done by someone to another person.

But, there are 2 problems with this view of empowerment:

  1. In today’s organization, formal bureaucratic power and authority are elusive.  Even those at the top of the organizational charts lack such authority, and those laboring at the bottom rarely possess such formal authority.  Many who have empowered themselves over the years – think the Civil Rights or the Women’s Rights movements –held no formal authority. Instead, they knew they had power inside themselves and they leveraged it to make major change.
  2. If empowerment is a gift of power or formal authority, someone must receive the gift! But, what if someone doesn’t want the power or the authority? Can a leader still empower him or her?  No, she can’t.  You can’t either.

Why does all this matter?

You see, empowerment is something I must do for myself, and you must do for yourself.  No one else can empower me.  And no one else can empower you.  Nor can you empower someone else.  Stop trying!

Instead, no matter your place in the organization, there is something you can do.  You can create space where people, empowering themselves, step forward, leverage their personal power, and meaningfully contribute to your organization’s mission, your team’s purpose, and their personal calling.  How?

  • If you’re a team leader, shut your mouth sometimes, allow silence to permeate the air, and wait for your talented team members to speak up, offer ideas, and move the conversation forward.
  • If you’re a small group leader, don’t be a perfect leader.  Allow the food preparations to be less than ideal, let the conversation awkwardly stall, and wait for people to step forward, challenge one another, and move the group toward health.
  • If you think you’re better at most things than others (be honest with yourself, you know who you are), resist the urge to take over and control situations.  Instead, step back, don’t answer every question that comes your way, and encourage others to make decisions, take risks, and offer their best.

When you do that, you’ll create space where people can empower themselves.

The biggest obstacle to personal empowerment is too much leader activity, not too little.  If you want to create space for people to empower themselves, perhaps the best thing you can do is to strategically not do. Then, you’ll create space where people choose, themselves, to leverage their personal power to make a meaningful difference – and that’s empowerment!

Reflection: What can you strategically not do to create space where people can empower themselves?

Photo Credit: Cuba Gallery