Empowerment? Maybe you could start by just getting out of the way?

I have just read yet another piece about “empowerment” and I am throwing the bullshit flag.  Enough. You know who can empower me?  I can.  You know what you can do?  You can get the hell out of my way.  To be very honest, I find the idea of empowerment as a management practice offensive and misinformed.

Most of what is done in the name of management and most of what is done in the name of human resources today is about conformity and compliance.  Policy.  Reducing risk.  Meetings.  Meetings.  Meetings.  Ridiculous budgeting and decision making processes.  Maintaining order.  Keeping track of people and stuff.  Protecting turf.  Playing the game.  Get in your box and stay there.  Being polite over being honest.  There are certainly exceptions to this (and its not just Zappos for crying out loud), but I do see this as the norm.

I do not believe much in the idea of empowering others, but before we can even have any kind of serious conversation about employee empowerment we need to get the antiquated and conformist practices of management and human resources out of the way.    The problem does not lie in the employees, but in organizational cultures, practices and policies that are “disempowering.”  I think I just invented a word.

I think that the belief that “leaders” need to (or can) “empower” employees is further evidence of two increasingly significant realities.

1-This thing we have come to refer to as leadership/management is actually a fundamental component of the problems facing the organization today.

2-Nearly everything about business has changed except “the business.”

What do you think about the idea of empowerment?

Be good to each other.

  1. Marigo Raftopoulos

    Fantastic energetic post! My idea of empowerment is about getting “the system” out of the way and providing a stimulating environment for people to do their thing. It’s all about creating possibility spaces rather than performance management systems that are entrenched in outdated business assumptions and values.

  2. Charee Klimek


    First, I love your in-your-face posts. They’re invigorating.

    If you haven’t read Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book “Power” yet, you should. I think you’d probably find it right inline with you what you’re trying to say here: People need to take their careers, their positions into their own hands while dealing with the harsh reality of office politics today.

    Second, As a flag flying “empowerment” advocate, I’m here to defend the theory and practice (at least from my perspective). The term has become muddled and is the call to action for my own business. Your bullshit flag offends me yet provides the perfect opportunity for me to stand up and defend the concept. (By the way, not sure which article you read to throw you over the edge, but I’d love it if you would share that.)

    Finally, my thoughts about the idea of empowerment?

    1. Empowerment – from my perspective IS management getting the hell out of the way of their employees. Empowerment is all about AUTONOMY. Something employees desperately want: To be free of the chains of conformity, compliance and practices that enable “disempowerment” within organizations.

    Cultures that want to empower their employees first have to undergo a radical transformation from leadership to managers and everyone in between. It requires a whole new way of thinking, behaving and removal barriers that current practices and policies create. Most of all technologies must be reorganized to live up to the empowerment standards, that can actually help companies be more successful by letting their people ideas bubble up.

    The book itself empowered (Forrester) while written to sell IT solutions fundamentally, supports the notion of a new, open collaborative working environment.

    2. Your belief on the new realities is spot on. Especially the fact that everything about business has changed – except business itself.

    With that I’ve empowered MYSELF just as you’ve empowered YOU to try to raise awareness of the issues.

    For me, it’s been in face-to-face meetings with clients, a very deep dive into researching new leadership models necessary to accept the realities of the new world they’re struggling to compete in. And next, gather that data (now a library) to share the research, opening it up to provide information for people that are looking for evidence and validation to move their business from the dark ages to the 21st century.

    So we’re not too far off in our thinking with exception that I disagree that empowerment is bullshit.

    You and I still have yet to connect to either debate or share thinking on this and many other subjects.

    I invite that conversation and hope you’ll take me up on it.


  3. joe gerstandt

    Thank you both for reading and responding here, sorry it took a while for your posts to be live, I am still figuring out my new site. Special thanks to you Charee for taking the time to share your perspective as someone doing empowerment work. I think that one thing you and I might have in common is that we work in fields not real well understood…and despite the fact that they are not real well understood, everyone under the sun has something to say about them (the above blog post for example!). I think that we are on the same page and I am all about empowerment as you explain it…my issue is not really with empowerment but with that deficit based approach that I tend to bump into from time to time. But, empowerment being all about autonomy…I am down with that all day, every day. I dig it. A lot.

    So. Let me pick my flag up…or at least clarify that it was not directed towards your approach to the work that you do…I think that your approach to your work and my approach to my work are actually very complimentary.

    Thanks for the perspective.

  4. Michelle Baldwin

    I agree with Charee about empowerment… but I think I agree with you, Joe, in the fact that a lot of management styles preach “empowerment,” but have actually corrupted the definition of the term.

    When I was a project manager, there were 7 people on my team. Each had his/her own job to do. I was there to manage the project, not them. We all approached projects together. Each person had something to contribute, and we decided together how to complete our projects. Of course we had to comply with the business model and guidelines, but it was a great environment where everyone was mostly autonomous and knew what to do… all without someone standing over their shoulders demanding them to do their jobs. That felt empowering!

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    last week our class held a similar discussion about this topic and you show something we have not covered yet, appreciate that.

    – Laura

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    […] Gerstandt says: quit worrying about “empowering” me and just get out of my way! […]

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