The Vector View on Empowerment: It Used to Be Such a Nice Little Word

September 28th, 2015   •   no comments   

I recently saw an article referenced on LinkedIn disparaging the use of the word “engagement” and advocating the concept of “empowerment.” I couldn’t help but smile as I read the article authored by “a management consultant and former IT executive.” It reminded me of a strategic initiative Vector Group was involved with for British Airways (BA) way back in 1993.

Vector Group presented “Managing Winners,” a two and a half-day program designed to achieve understanding of what quality really meant and to engage managers in rethinking and reprioritizing their practices toward quality as a key BA business strategy. This quality workshop was delivered across the airline to the entire BA management group.

We were well aware even then that empowerment was ill-defined, misused and often misapplied in a business setting. We told the participants on the third day of the management development workshop that “empowerment used to be such a nice little word until it started hanging around with other bad words like quality and re-engineering and the like that were also nice words at one time.”

Empowerment in its earliest inception was closely associated with the civil rights movement followed soon after with the women’s movement back in the 1970s. It’s been applied across the globe in a myriad of situations whereby a population of people may be marginalized to some degree. A pair of academics doing research on empowerment recently found that there were 32 different definitions of empowerment currently used.

In conducting some “intensive research” for this blog (checking with www.businessdictionary.com), I found the definition has not changed much since those days back at BA. “A management practice of sharing information, rewards, and power with employees so that they can take initiative and make decisions to solve problems and improve service and performance. Empowerment is based on the idea that giving employees skills, resources, authority, opportunity, motivation, as well holding them responsible and accountable for outcomes of their actions, will contribute to their competence and satisfaction.”

Even this straightforward and fairly clean definition, however, points to some of the inherent problems with empowerment as well as some of its strengths. Sharing of such things as information, rewards and power certainly sounds like a good idea but what would be gained? What can be lost? How is the relationship defined between the giver and the receiver? The crux of the matter seems to point to a one-up and one-down scenario.

Looking back at the history of empowerment, didn’t we see populations of people who were marginalized, disenfranchised, subjugated or suppressed? In those situations major changes in our society needed to take place insofar as bringing those populations to some kind of equal footing in basic citizenship. The majority had to give up some things and did so unwillingly; it took federal legislation to provide more of a level playing field for minorities.

All too often, as management empowers employees, it looks as though management abdicated its own responsibility in getting things done like fixing problems and achieving results. The giving of power is very different than creating an atmosphere and a culture where people take the initiative to seek power and assume personal responsibility.

During British Airways’ Managing Winners, we presented the concept of “enablement” rather than empowerment. In the Vector View, enablement is more about encouraging responsibility and personal initiative. Behind this is a deeper look at leadership and the need to guide employees in meeting organizational goals and resolving problems effectively and efficiently with a minimum of management direction or intervention.

Our point was and is that managers cannot give people initiative or power; management can only create the conditions which support and encourage people to take initiative. Key behaviors for a manager who wants to maintain an enabling culture include:

• Demonstrating enthusiasm for the organization and the work;
• communicating positive expectations for individual and team initiative and commitment;
• encouraging positive performance and recognizing initiative and extra effort to do things right;
• linking individual and team performance to organizational mission, goals and results

To further explain initiative we contend that initiative is the assumption of power. It occurs when an individual chooses the act on his or her own. It is always a personal choice.

The decision to take initiative requires that the individual. . .

1. believes the environment gives him/her permission to take action;
2. has the confidence to give him or her permission to take action

Although the individual must make these judgments, three key factors influence the decision to take power

• the leader
• the team
• the environment (culture)

To read further about enablement and what influences it, please visit our website at http://www.vectorgroupinc.com. You may request our concept paper “Enablement and the Mechanics of Creating an Empowered Workforce: Encouraging Responsibility and Initiative.” It is free of charge.

Please contact us with specific questions.

Best,

Gary

Gary W. Craig
Managing Partner
Vector Group, Inc.

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