Friday, 20 December 2013 16:00

The Truth About Workplace EmPOWERment

A culture of accountability, where employees are empowered to work independently and to make informed decisions, is a popular leadership strategy. But scratch a little below the surface of "empowerment", and you will find a minefield of hidden traps for the unwary leader. When faced with a choice, do employees really want a greater sense of empowerment at work if it means taking on the consequences that additional responsibility brings? What happens when management does relinquish a degree of power and control - can a company justify the cost of the potential risks of an undisciplined environment?


In 2007, the Journal of Organization Management published a research article by Keith M. Hmieleski and Michael D. Ensley that emphasised that leadership style must be aligned with the business context. In certain contexts, directive leadership is required, whereas other situations may call for a more hands-off, empowerment-type approach.


A company that strives for innovation, creativity and new ways of operating would be stifled under an autocratic-style leadership. But a process-oriented, precision-dependent, automated operation would descend into chaos with anything less. Few would argue that empowering employees encourages creative solutions to problems. Empowered employees experience greater accountability and may perform superior work. However, an attempt to increase empowerment in the workforce also has its pitfalls.


  • It may cause conflict among individuals who may disagree with peer decisions.
  • The increased confidence that comes with a feeling of control can be a source of resentment and contention.
  • Company information must be disclosed to those who are responsible, which risks confidentiality and security.
  • The ability of employees may not be to the level required for the decisions being made and a retraction of managerial oversight can lead to costly mistakes and disorganisation.
  • Company goals for greater employee empowerment may conflict with individual managers' views of power and success.
  • Moreover, employees are unlikely to accept additional responsibility without a corresponding increase in compensation.


Even more complex is a leader who may have to act as a director in one organisational area, but as a catalyst and stimulator of unlimited freedom in another. Understanding the most appropriate leadership for a certain context is one thing, but applying it in a fair and equitable way that employees will understand and accept is quite another.


For leaders who can see the potential for greater workplace empowerment, three truths are clear:


  1. Greater empowerment in the workplace carries a raft of opportunities in higher accountability, responsibility, productivity, innovation and reward.
  2. Empowerment by definition involves a shift in the balance of "power" in the organisation – hence leaders and employees need the opportunity to explore what this means to them personally.
  3. Just as one can't expect others to change just because you tell them to, leaders can't "give out empowerment" and expect that the workforce embrace it without some resistance.


Achieving greater empowerment involves fundamental choices from both leaders and employees. The best leaders do this by focussing their efforts on engaging others in the vision for change; addressing deep seated assumptions about power and what it means in the organisation; and creating conditions that allow the experience of greater empowerment at work to unfold.




Journal of Organizational Behavior: A contextual examination of new venture performance: entrepreneur leadership behavior, top management team heterogeneity, and environmental dynamism


Accountability Leadership (2013) Di Worrall  


Empowerment: What Is It?

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