The term empowerment is frequently used in many different contexts with apparently differing reasons, so much so that it can be a challenge to understand what it really means.
Any cursory literature review will not show a clear, unambiguous definition of the concept; which makes it hard to connect theory with practice. However, a common understanding of empowerment allows us to recognise empowerment when we see it, in whatever context. More importantly this will allow us to establish outcomes against which we can evaluate progress, assuming the empowerment of others is our purpose.
It is a topic that sits well behind the Blue Door, either from a personal development context: do you feel empowered, are you taking advantage of being empowered, what do you need to do in order to become empowered? Alternatively, you might consider this from the perspective of empowering others. Interestingly, many difficult conversations occur because members of staff do not feel empowered, or feel their power has been taken away. A subject considered in the RESOLVE training process.
Typical definitions include
- authority or power given to someone to do something: “individuals are given empowerment to create their own dwellings”
- the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights
- a multi-dimensional social process that helps people gain control over their own lives
- a process that fosters power in people for use in their own lives, their communities and in their society, where they act on issues they define as important
The term empowerment had its roots within the business environment, where it is referred to as:
‘A management practice of sharing information, rewards, and power with employees so that they can take initiative and make decisions to solve problems and improve service and performance.’
In this ‘engagement or motivational’ context, the premise is that by giving employees skills, resources, authority, opportunity, motivation, as well holding them responsible and accountable for outcomes of their actions, it will contribute to their competence and satisfaction.
The term power is a core concept within the notion of empowerment, but how power is perceived varies within different genres of study: social science; psychology; education etc.
In one context power is often defined as “the ability or right to control people or things”, implying that people with power have the authority to influence the actions of others, whether or not these others see this in their own interests.
Through the lens of social science, power is viewed as having influence and control, with power being a commodity or structure often divorced from behaviour. From this perspective power can be seen as an unchangeable commodity. However, power does not exist in a vacuum; it normally exists within a relationship between people or things. Within this context, where relationships can change and develop, power too can change: empowerment as a process of change, then, becomes a meaningful concept.
Another approach to take when considering power suggests that it is often an absolute concept. It is something that I have at your expense, or vice versa: a zero-sum game. This conception of power suggests that power will remain in the hands of the powerful unless they give it up.
Although this is certainly one way that power is experienced, it makes assumptions about the way power is experienced in interactions between people and bodies. Civil right activists, feminists, members of grass root pressure groups and individuals in families suggest another aspect of power; one that is characterized by collaboration, sharing and mutuality.
A focus on the collective capacity to implement change allows power to broaden its meaning beyond domination and authority, to include influence, and the idea of sharing [power] with. So again, seeing power as a process that occurs in collective relationships presents the possibility of empowerment.
Understanding Empowerment within the process of Professional Development
Broadly speaking, any organisation exists as a community, which hosts mangers and those who work for them, where the shared process and intent is to meet the aims and objectives of the organisation. Empowerment as a concept can be applied to the organisation, the tier of management, or to the workers themselves: all three are bound by relationships that are based upon agreed social processes.
At the onset of any empowerment process, a number of assumptions need to be challenged: empowerment is a change process. However, it is not a given that any one individual has either the willingness, or the necessary resources to engage in the process. The change that we might want to see in others, is based upon our paradigm of the situation, it might not – yet – be theirs.
To enable the required change, we must establish the kind of meaningful relationships where parties become partners in solving the complex issues that need to be addressed. These ‘collaborations’ must be based on mutual respect, acceptance of a diverse range of perspectives, and a shared vision of a creative and realistic solution. At the heart of this change process is synergy of action between the organisation, the managers and their staff: this alignment of purpose is fundamental to the success of the process.
Within the context of individual action and whole organisation, individuals can learn to adapt and modify their behaviours through learning activities, such as team meeting, reviews, supervision, and through the support of the organisation as a community. It is a false premise to think that if we give staff members power, they will become “empowered”; we can however provide them with the opportunities, resources and support that they need to take ownership of themselves.
“The only person who can empower me, is me”
This is a powerful statement; however, it is not one that initially resonates with the average member of staff; being “empowered” is not how many of workers view professional or person development.
Their thoughts turn to the complexity of the task, that it may be irrelevant, it won’t be something they will enjoy, it is out of their comfort zone etc. If they do attempt a task and don’t instantly succeed, they may become more concerned with preserving their self-image.
When staff members are empowered, they learn more, and they learn better: in terms of how and why, Thomas and Velthouse offered a useful framework:
Refers to the value of the task in relation to individual beliefs, ideals, and standards. If the work you need to do doesn’t any real meaning to you, or doesn’t hold much importance, then there isn’t much motivation to work hard and produce quality work.
Empowerment derives from feeling qualified and capable of performing the work, which impacts on confidence. You can handle what you’re being asked to do.
The more impact you believe you will have, the more motivation you feel to work hard. You are empowered if you believe you’re doing work that makes a difference—work that matters and is important.
This dimension relates to whether you get to determine the task goals and how you will accomplish them. The more choice you have, the more empowered you feel.
Within this framework managers can play an important role in empowering their staff:
- Provide accurate descriptions of those actions learners must take in order to succeed
- Structure the tasks clearly and explain what steps to take and in what order
- Identifying and providing relevant resources
- Recognising, supporting and celebrating effort, no matter how small
After a period of time, the process morphs to one where they:
- Ask learner to identify the actions they need to take, and in what order,
- Ask learners to research and find whatever resources they may need to complete the task successfully
- Maintain a focus on success, not failure: pointing out the value of learning from errors
- Employ a genuine coaching approach to problem solving – structuring enquiry, not telling answers
The framework resonates well with many of the concepts that underpin the RESOLVE approach to managing difficult conversations.