I read a lot – it’s a condition of my profession. Fortunately I like to read and there’s no shortage of materials to choose from. Lately, there’s been a lot of attention being paid to the notion of “Empowerment”.

Some of what I’m reading makes me a little uncomfortable, and I’ve been wondering why so much of the prevailing rhetoric about empowerment makes me so uneasy.

I believe it’s because a lot of what’s written about empowerment suggests that empowerment is something that you can “do” to people – that is, as a manager or leader you can empower a person or a group of people. “Empower your people” is a popular rallying cry.

But saying that someone is empowered to do something, or telling them that they are empowered, is quite simply not good enough – because as it’s described frequently in contemporary business writing, empowerment is at its core, a feeling. People can feel empowered – but that does not give them the authority (or skills, competencies, tools, or mandate) to do their work.

We need to stop talking about empowering, and start talking about authorizing. It’s a critical distinction.

We work with our clients to create accountability-based management systems, which clarify roles and accountabilities, and ensure the right people are doing the right work at the right level. Accountability, rather than being limiting or threatening, actually increases trust within the organization.

In an accountability-based management system, when you give a role holder a piece of work to do – an accountability – you must also give them the authority to do it. Accountability and authority go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. And here’s the really important part – when a role holder has the accountability and authority to do something, empowerment happens automatically. Empowerment is an outcome of a properly implemented accountability-based management system.

What chafes for role holders is being asked to “own” something they do not have the authority to make happen. When a leader tells an employee they are “empowered” (without being clear about accountability and authority) the role holder very often finds that their empowerment stops at a particular point… which is the boundary of their authority.

A great example of this came up for me last week. Four Seasons Hotels has a legendary reputation for customer satisfaction. One reason for this (apart from superb training and a fierce focus on protecting the brand) is that every employee at Four Seasons has the authority to fix things for guests who have an issue. Every employee. If there is a problem, they can fix it. Whatever the problem, whatever the fix. Without escalating, or asking permission.

Contrast this with most restaurants you visit. Many chains would claim that their front of house staff (the people who take your orders and bring you your food) are empowered to ensure guest satisfaction. But what typically happens if there’s a problem with your meal? In the vast majority of cases, the manager gets involved. That’s because the staff lacks the authority that is required for them to be truly accountable for (and thereby empowered to ensure) guest satisfaction.

So if you’re a leader or a manager, and you’re looking to empower, focus your efforts on developing clear, accountable roles with the right authorities. When you do, and when you put the right person into that clearly-defined role, you’ll get the empowerment you’re looking for.

Core International | Organization Design Consultants