The Paradox of Empowerment

It has become such a cliche for “empowerment” to be viewed as the utmost in effective leadership.  “Micromanagement” is the dirty word at the opposite end of the spectrum.

On the one hand, it’s hard to argue with the belief that people feel better when they are not being constantly nagged by their boss.  And, it’s hard to argue with the research which shows that people feel better when they have decision making authority and some control over their work environment.  So, there is strong legitimacy for the “up with empowerment, down with micromanagement” movement.

On the other hand, people feel best when they are successful.  Most don’t wake up each morning with the desire or intention to fail, or even to be mediocre.  And, we all need help in order to learn and develop our skills.  I know that I would not have a fraction of the effectiveness that I have today if not for the incredible amount of feedback, coaching, and redirection I received throughout my career.  The early years of my career came at a time when “empowerment” was not quite so popular.  I am very thankful, since I don’t think I ever would have developed the skills I now have if I were left to learn them on my own.

So, how do we reconcile the two sides of this issue?

First, we should limit the definition of “micromanagement” to include only those destructive leadership behaviors which are unnecessarily bureaucratic and fail to provide helpful guidance, structure, or coaching.

Second, we should accept that, as managers, it is our job to observe, inspect, measure, and provide direct feedback.  We should not feel guilty about doing these things.  In the worst case, these actions will help us catch people doing things right and give us the chance to provide positive recognition.

Third, we must always remember that “empowering” others does not give us license to fail to do our jobs.  We are responsible; it is not fair to allow our team to fail even if it is with the good intention of trying to “empower” them.

Fourth, we should strive to define the decisions and control our employees can have, even if it fits under an umbrella of decisions and control we retain for ourselves as managers.

With good balance and good situational leadership, we can give our teams the structure they need in order to feel successful while still feeling an appropriate sense of empowerment.


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