The Hidden Half of Empowerment

We hear the word ‘empowerment’ a lot these days – in the news, in business blogs, and in the workplace.

Although it’s an important topic, it seems that most of the commentaries deal with only half of what ‘empowerment’ is actually about.

That’s because they only focus on one need – the ‘task’ – or the job to be done. They ignore the other need – the ‘personal’ – or how the person doing the job rewards themselves for doing the task.

Let’s start with task.

When you delegate a task to someone and you ‘empower’ them to complete it, you are giving them the authority and responsibility to do it. This is the ‘task need’. This is WHAT has to be done.

The ‘task need’ focuses on all the tangible needs in business – deadlines, budgets, meetings, systems, problem solving, decision making, etc.

For most managers once the task is assigned, the job of ‘empowering’ is done.

However, in truth, only half the job is done.

The other half of ‘empowerment’ is much more subtle and involves two separate issues.

The first issue is how the manager presents the task to be done.

The second is how the individual doing the task uses it to reward themselves. This is about their ‘personal’ need.

A “personal” need focuses on the intangible needs of the person doing the task. This could include using it to feed their self-esteem, self-worth, ego, emotional well-being and fulfilment, etc.

Here are two examples illustrating the first issue – how a manager might present the task – in the first case without considering someone’s personal need and in the second case, considering and facilitating the personal need.

Here’s how the task is presented when the personal need isn’t considered

“Alfred, I’d like you to take over this project even though you’ve got a lot to do. You’re one of my best people. It’s got to be done really fast and on budget. I know you’ve done it before so you’ve got the skills. Is that OK? Do you have any questions or issues?”

Here’s how the task is presented when the personal need is considered and facilitated

“Alfred, thanks for meeting with me because I know you’re busy and I appreciate you making the time to meet.  Something just came up and I’ve got a problem and I need your help. I’ve just been handed this project and been told that it has to be done really fast and on budget.  In my view, you’re the ideal person to do it because you’ve done one like this before and you did it really well.  But, here’s my problem.  I know how busy you are and I don’t know if it is fair to ask you to also take this on. And, if you do take it on, will it just be too much?  Since I don’t want to jeopardize or overburden you, I thought I would start by asking for your input.  What do you think?”

It’s clear that because of the way the information is presented in the second example, Alfred is more likely to feel listened to, heard, valued, respected and cared for as an employee.

That’s because it addresses both the empowerment needs:

1. The task need – because the person is empowered to do it based on their responsibilities, authority and experience.

2. The personal need – because the chances are now much higher that the person will use “how” the task was presented, to empower themselves.

That’s why addressing the personal need and not just the task need is critical to a manager’s overall and ongoing success with their team.