Interesting piece, Claire — thanks for sharing. I also have problems with the word empowerment, and feel similarly about the concept of ‘motivating’ employees. For employees to have power, one way is to ‘give’ it to them, another is for them to ‘take’ it. I like what Tom Nixon says about responsibility, that it cannot be given, it must be taken (otherwise, that person hasn’t really become the one who is responsible). Perhaps it’s the same with power — for employees to truly have power, autonomy, authority, they must take it; it cannot be given. If it’s given, you may get the feeling it could always be taken back. So then the question is, how do you create the conditions for people to be able to take it?

Right now it feels like so many of us are in a process of learning new ways of being together — a dynamic that’s much more adult-adult and much less parent-child. That means managers need to stop behaving like parents (and empowering people, I’d argue, perpetuates the parent-child dynamic) AND employees need to stop behaving like children (TAKING power rather than waiting for it to be given).

What I’m wrestling with is: If you are a manager or even informally a leader, your ‘power’ is tacit. Maybe this won’t always be the case as we begin to unlearn traditional, rigidly hierarchical ways of working… But for now, even in flatter organisations, I’d argue that power is there, it’s assumed. So I wonder if there’s an interim step where empowerment is necessary UNTIL it has really shifted and people believe it. Which means giving ALL the power away and redistributing it and being consistent enough that people believe it.

I’d argue that some of your questions (what do employees really want? How can I make it clear why what they’re doing matters? etc.) COULD fall into that parent behaviour/dynamic category — it very much depends on your mindset and way of being. If you’re coming from a coaching leadership mindset and way of being, these questions are really valuable and valid. But if you’re still coming from an empowerment mindset (“how can I make my employees more… [empowered/motivated/responsible/engaged]…”) then it strays into that tricky empowerment area that you and I are trying to avoid. What are your thoughts?

I think this is a really important topic to discuss so thank you for writing this article. I look forward to the conversations it generates.

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Founder of Reimaginaire, trainer and coach with Tuff Leadership Training, host of Leadermorphosis podcast.

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