The benefits of having an engaged workforce are well documented by now, yet many companies still struggle to make it a reality. Surveys over the last 30 years show that on average, 70-80% of a given workforce remains disengaged, no matter how many bean bags, slides or foosball tables are installed in their offices. Technology driven initiatives to engage people are not helping either: Gartner reckons that around 80% of social business initiatives, which are supposed to foster engagement, will fail. Ouch.

So, with a growing interest in self-management principles, companies are starting (again) to talk about empowering their people. Generally, they mean pushing decisions down the hierarchy, given their staff more control over their work and more authority over decisions.

And I have a problem with that.

My main problem is the very concept of “empowering”. Because if you have to empower someone, by implication that also means you can “depower” them. Doesn’t sound very powerful to me.

You might say, this is just semantics, but words matter. The term “empowering” is loaded with suppositions, such as that there is one party who holds the power and is wise and noble enough to give it up. It supposes power is an exhaustible commodity. It is also an incredibly vague term. It seems to be about action, but on its own, it is unspecific and open to so many interpretations as to be (almost?) meaningless.

To avoid being vague myself, let me outline the 5 key myths around empowering employees – and what you can do instead:

Myth 1: Leaders need to empower people.
Actually, if you treat your employees respectfully, as adults, as people who are capable, responsible and smart, then they are already empowered. All you as a leader have to do is to give them a voice and authority that, they, as adults, already hold.

Think of it this way: your people act as autonomous, smart, trustworthy and committed people in their private lives. People have families, relationships and enter into complex financial contracts. Do they somehow change the moment they walk through the door to do their work? Of course not. So, if you treat your employees as adults, then it is logical to listen to their ideas and opinions and let them make decisions about their work.

Some people would say that their staff don’t have all the information necessary to make decision – well, there is a simple answer: give it to them!

Myth 2: Your view of empowering matches what your employees want.
There is no one definition of what empowering employees mean – that makes is hard to compare, measure and hand out “empowerment”. Your ideas of what an empowered employee might look like may appear terribly patronising to some, and completely overwhelming to others.

Worse, people might want/need different levels of autonomy in different situations. These needs can never be addressed in fixed organisational hierarchies and org charts. Something else is needed – a more organic structure – see below in myth 3.

Myth 3: Empowering people is about making everyone equal.
On the contrary, organisations that do self-management effectively do have hierarchies. But these are not defined and fixed in organisation charts. And simply removing your hierarchy will result in confused people. The problem with hierarchy is not the role definition that comes with it. The problem is that bosses use hierarchy to tell those below them what to do and as a justification to limit information sharing.

We believe that clear role definitions (with people filling various roles that may change, in some cases regularly, even daily) allow the team to focus on getting the job done AND look for creative ways of improving any given situation.

Myth 4: Empowering is enough by itself. 
Not so. To create a more flexible, responsive organisation by applying self-managing principles, leaders must also ensure that their people have the requisite competence and clarity to make successful decisions. This means the organisation spends more time on technical training and creating clarity of purpose than it would if relying on a top-down compliance model. On top of this, to make self-management successful, most people need to acquire soft skills that are rarely taught in traditional education or management training. These are skills around conflict management, group decision-making, developing, communicating and holding a greater vision, and self-awareness.

Myth 5: You can “do” empowerment.
Many organisations look for a recipe or programme that they can follow to empower their staff. They turn to consultants and best practices develop a change initiative that can be rolled out across their business. But a top-down approach is not very empowering – it goes against the grain of the very thing they are trying to achieve.

Plus, there is no single right way of doing empowerment or self-management, so following someone else’s approach is not likely to work. Of course, you can learn from what others are doing, and check if it would be useful in your specific situation. And you should seek information from those who experience in the field. But this cannot be done by the board in isolation from their teams/ staff.

Start off with an honest conversation with your people, learn what they want in terms of autonomy and go from there – together.

If you’d like to discuss how to get started with not “empowering” your people but build highly engaged, and uncommonly successful teams, contact us at