Empowerment has become a buzzword in most organizations today. New programs have shown up as a way to engage employees at work, but are they even solving the right problem?

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines empowerment as:

give (someone) the authority or power to do something.

To me, the word is a paradox. The fact that you have to (and that you can) empower others seems contradictory. It doesn’t feel right. It feels manipulative at best, and it is flawed.

There is something fundamentally wrong with “empowering” others. Empowerment implies that there is something wrong with the employees and that you need to fix/engage them, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The underlying assumption is that others in your organization can empower and engage you.

True empowerment comes from within, not from outside. Any attempts to empower others should be considered manipulation at best. We are naturally inquisitive, empowered, and in a state of action from our birth. We naturally have (and can use) our own resourcefulness and initiative. We don’t need others to empower us.

Even the best empowerment/engagement programs can’t fix what’s already broken. The fact that organizations need to empower their employees indicates (unacknowledged admittance on their part) that they have done something wrong in the first place, which they are trying to fix by giving them back the power to do things. They are trying to fix something that has long become a part of the organization’s culture and DNA, and you can’t change that overnight.

The current limited understanding of empowerment in most organizations is a result of some false assumptions, because of which they may not have the awareness to understand, and therefore may be solving the wrong problem.

Here are some false assumptions when it comes to empowerment inside organizations:

The first assumption is that we need to be empowered by others. We don’t. That’s not how empowerment works. True empowerment comes from within, not from outside (more on this below).

The second assumption is that others can empower us (or we can be empowered by others). They can’t. The problem with that thinking is that it contradicts the principle that says you can’t teach others; they can only learn (by choice).

Also, others learn what they see in us because our actions speak louder than our words, and because they see a lack of leadership, can you blame them for acting otherwise? They are just following orders because you’ve trained them to comply.

Empowerment (like motivation) is best when it’s intrinsic. Either we’re empowered or not. If we’re not empowered ourselves, no one can empower or engage us.

The third assumption is that you feel the need to empower others, which could mean two things:

  • Something is wrong with you (such as lack of leadership), which, of course, you don’t know is the problem, and which you’re trying to fix/solve by having empowerment programs. In other words, when the problem is (self/internal) leadership, the way out is presumed to be (others/external) management. You don’t need me to point out the holes in this theory. We know that the best practices of management cannot compensate for lack of leadership. This basically comes down to solving the wrong problem.

  • Thinking that something is wrong with others (instead of yourself), which you want to change. The problem with this thinking is that it contradicts the principle that says that the problem is never out there but always within. Besides, we know that’s not how change works.

The thing is, it’s far easier to build strong organizations than to repair “broken” ones. At best, having these programs only seems like a reaction or an afterthought to the fact that organizations have actively disempowered their employees in the first place.

Organizations are no different from individuals in that they can (and often do) come in the way of their own progress. The problem isn’t with empowering others, but in leading others. The fact that you have to empower others only goes to show a lack of leadership at the top of an organization.

You don’t have to empower, engage, or give others the authority or power to do something. You need to simply stop taking that authority and power from others and let them do things (more on this below).

Give them some leeway as to how they do things. Stop getting in their way.

In an organization, you need to move the authority to the information (instead of moving the information to the authority, which is often the case in organizations) down the hierarchy as much as possible. You want to do the things that only you as a leader can do, while leaving everything else to what everyone else can do. Your job as a leader is to help facilitate that greatness in everyone else without telling them how to do their jobs. You’ve already hired them for their expertise. You don’t know their jobs better than them. Why get in their way?

Leadership is about giving control to others, not taking control from them. Give the control to your employees. Trust them to do the right thing. Trust begins with those who lead, not those who follow.

Give your employees goals you want them to achieve while giving them broad latitude as to how they want to achieve them. Give them space to thrive. Stop micromanaging them. That means stop telling them how to do their jobs. They know how to do their jobs, they don’t tell you how to do your job, so why should they be treated any different? They shouldn’t.

When we tell others what to do, we’re doing the thinking for them. By doing so, they learn to become lazy in their thinking. We’re teaching them that it’s okay for them to not do the thinking, and we’re even discouraging them from thinking. We’re giving them the fish instead of teaching them how to catch the fish. By telling others what to do, we’re robbing them of their ability to do the things that we’ve hired them to do in the first place.

You might think that you are helping by telling them what to do, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. When we solve other people’s problems for them, we’re doing both a disservice to them and to ourselves. Our efforts are being wasted because we’re making their problem our problem. We’re robbing them of their ability to solve their problems, and, as a result, they are not learning anything.

You don’t want to do the thinking for them. You want them to do the thinking for themselves. If they don’t know how, then now would be a good time to start. Otherwise, what happens when you’re gone? Who’s going to do the thinking then? Just because you lead the organization now, your leadership doesn’t end when you leave. It is measured only after you’re gone. That is true leadership.

Most organizations continue to think their employees need empowerment. They don’t. It’s an afterthought on their part. It’s a reaction to what should not have been necessary/required in the first place. It’s about fixing something that doesn’t need a solution. It’s not about empowerment, but leadership (or lack thereof). It’s about giving control to others instead of taking control from them.

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