What Is Empowerment?

by Stephen R. Covey

What does empowerment mean to you? Perhaps more important, what does it mean to most people throughout your organization?

Perhaps the first step in creating an empowered work force is having everyone gain a shared understanding of what empowerment is- and what it is not. It is the powerful governing principle at the managerial level of any organization.

Many managers think of empowerment as delegating decision making to the lowest level possible. In practice, we too often find "empowering" bosses delegating responsibility to subordinates without sufficient authority, understanding, resources or supportive guidance to be effective. People who think they are "empowered" too often resist the limitations and guidance that must accompany any responsibility. True empowerment is not: responsibility without authority or resources, authority to "do your own thing" without limits or accountability, power without focus or consequences, or abandonment by the boss or supervisor.

The root of the English word "empowerment" is power- the ability to do, to accomplish, to perform or enable. The prefix "em" comes from the Latin and Greek, meaning "in" or "within." Empowerment, therefore, can suggest the power within people, the enormous reservoir of creativity, activity and potential contribution that lies within every worker, largely untapped by organizational leadership and management.

In a deeper and more significant sense, employees will become empowered as they are able to apply principles by using core processes. Empowerment comes as people contribute their full potential in attaining both personal and organizational objectives. Your role as an empowering leader might be considered this: To create conditions in which all employees can contribute their maximum potential capacity to achieve the strategic goals and desired results of the organization in meeting stakeholder needs. Empowerment is not a program; it is a core condition for quality.

Think of your role as a leader in comparison to that of a gardener. What does it take to grow a world-class garden? There are many variables, including events in the environment over which you have no control. But the most important principle defining your role is this: the life of the plant is within the seed, not within the gardener!

A gardener creates conditions enabling the life within the seeds to germinate, to blossom, to bear fruit. You cannot guarantee that every seed will yield its maximum possible output, and some seasons will realize a more abundant harvest than others. But if you create the right conditions, over time you can predict that your garden will produce consist ently excellent results.

So it is with developing a quality organization. Your organization is not a machine, and your employees are not interchangeable parts. People are not things. Your organization is a complex, organic ecosystem; you cultivate people, you don't fix or repair them. You can't give, bestow, grant, authorize, delegate or impose empowerment. You create conditions to develop it.

The critical conditions for cultivating an empowering environment include:

Developing trustworthiness and trust; an environment where creativity and managed risks are encouraged; and helping people learn from mistakes.

Creating a system of win-win agreements as the core process for developing mutually beneficial relationships among employees and between the organization and outside stakeholders.

Supporting and encouraging self-directed work teams.

Aligning mission and strategy with customer needs and other forces in the dynamic marketplace, and then organizing structure and systems to support the strategy and each other.

Fostering personal and organizational self-accountability through consistent and frequent 360 degree feedback.

Adopting an empowering style of leadership and management that nurtures, coaches, mentors, releases, encourages and supports people in achieving their best.

When organizational leaders focus on developing conditions of empowerment, they will cultivate a quality culture of effective, productive, interdependent relationships. Such an environment can release within employees the power to contribute their maximum potential to achieving the mission and strategic goals of their organizations.

About the authors . . .

Stephen R. Covey is chairman of the Covey Leadership Center and author of Principle-Centered Leadership and the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Keith A. Gulledge is vice president and senior consultant with Covey Leadership Center's Professional Resource Group.

1996 Covey Leadership Center. For more information, telephone (800) 553-8889.

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