Tag Archives: power

Empowerment: Lifting the Ball and Chain

Are your employees free to do their best work? It’s a simple question but one that merits serious thought.

Too often, employees are weighed down by “ball-and-chain” restrictions that prevent them from getting real work done. Such constraints may come from the organization itself (the way it is structured, the heft of its policies and procedures, for example). Or, constraints may come from the way you manage them (whether you allow them to think and act on their own, for example).

If your employees are struggling under this weight, fortunately, there is something you can do to free them up. You can remove that ball and chain.

How? Think empowerment.

EmpowermentBeyond the Buzzword

I know, I know. The term “empowerment” has been way overused, and yet, the concept is a sound one. Stephen Covey says it best:

“An empowered organization is one in which individuals have the knowledge, skill, desire, and opportunity to personally succeed in a way that leads to collective organizational success.”

In other words, what’s good for the individual is also good for the company.

Think of it this way. Empowered employees are self-motivated and that’s always a good thing. In my last post about intrinsic motivation, I mentioned Paul Herr’s book, Primal Management. Herr says we are hard-wired to connect with others, to master skills, to achieve what we set out to do, to create and innovate, and to feel safe and secure. None of that can happen in a restrictive environment, however.

While the term empowerment is overused, it is under-practiced, and with good reason. It takes focus and commitment to create an environment in which people are free to think for themselves, solve problems, and respond to threats and opportunities.

What Does An Empowering Organization Look Like?

Take a look around your organization and within your own work group or project team. You might want to mentally check which indicators are currently in place:

  • No blaming others, no victim mentality
  • Decision-making takes place at all levels
  • Thoughts, feelings are freely expressed
  • No “us” vs. “them” mindset
  • Ideas are developed and considered
  • Little or no distrust and cynicism
  • No gossiping and back stabbing
  • People are engaged and energized
  • People feel genuinely appreciated
  • Accelerated learning and growth
  • Little absenteeism or turnover

If you’ve checked off only a couple indicators or none at all, don’t despair. There are things you can do to create a more empowering environment.

What It Takes to “Power Up” the Organization

Here are four major areas of focus to consider in the process of creating an empowering organization.

  • Does the company structure (reporting structure, hierarchy) allow people to do their best work?
  • Do cultural norms, the unwritten rules about the way things are done, reflect the value of empowerment?
  • Are company policies and procedures flexible enough to allow for innovation and improvement?
  • Do performance appraisals match the goals of an empowering organization?


You might be thinking that you have no control over these things (in which case, you yourself are not as empowered as you could be). Still, as manager, there are things you can do to create an empowering work team, regardless of whether the rest of the company is moving toward empowerment or not.

To get you started, here are some powerful questions to help you think about how your own attitudes and behaviors might promote or inhibit empowerment. Ask yourself these questions and be really honest in your answers.

  • Do I agree that empowerment is vital to my team and the company? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • Do I actively promote empowerment? In what ways do I constrain people and how could I change that?
  • In what ways do I promote or hinder the free exchange of information and ideas between individuals and departments?
  • What informal messages do I consciously or unconsciously send that get in the way of a truly empowered team? What impact does this have on productivity and morale?
  • What do employees say about me when I am not in the room?
  • Once people are trained and have demonstrated their competency, do I trust them to work in our best interest?
  • How do I react when someone challenges me?
  • How do I react when one of my employees takes a calculated risk and fails?

Once you’ve identified areas that may be impeding your team, you can work to correct them.

Do whatever you can to lighten the ball that weighs down your employees. Do everything in your power to remove the chain that binds them, even if it’s only one link at a time. You’ll be amazed at the results.

Until next time.