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Empowerment, That Horrible Word

08/04/2013

Network (hierarchichal) colorWhat scientists call distributed control is usually called empowerment by management consultants. However, some experts don’t like the term. The word seems to suggest that people are “disempowered” by default and need to be “empowered” by their managers. Perhaps that was indeed its original meaning, and I agree that this could be seen as disrespectful.

On the other hand, I believe networked systems are more powerful than hierarchical systems, because it’s so much harder to destroy them. By distributing control in an organization we not only empower workers, we also empower the managers. Maybe we should see it as empowerment of the system, not of the people. Remember the last time you were sick? I bet you felt quite powerless as an individual person against that tiny distributed virus. I’m just glad your distributed immune system was even more powerful, or else I had one reader less!

Plenty of arguments in favor of empowerment are cited in management literature, such as improving worker satisfaction, increasing profitability, and strengthening competitiveness. All of it is true. But never forget that the real reason for empowerment is to improve system effectiveness and survival. We enable the organization to be more resilient and agile, by delegating decision making and distributing control.

All over the world, knowledge workers are becoming better educated and more able to take matters in their own hands. And the more educated people are, the less effective authoritarian power works. In many organizations teams understand their work better than their managers do. Therefore the primary concern of management should be empowerment, not supervision. We aim for a more powerful system, not better controlled people.

This text is part of Delegation Boards, a Management 3.0 Workout article. Read more on my mailing list.

This article is written by on in Workout. Jurgen Appelo is at Happy Melly. Connect with Jurgen Appelo on .

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  • Lucian Adrian

    You speak of authoritarian management that should delegate, give control… That would be good, but I guess that for an authoritarian person that would be counter-nature. How can they give up control and let the teams self manage, self organize ?
    I believe that managers become authoritarian, this means that this is somehow a “learned” skill. How can one “unlearn” such a destructive skill ?
    Distributed systems need to work on a basic set of rules, just like the immune system does. In the context of an organization, am I right when I think that this can happen only when all those working in an organization act only in the best interest of the organization. Maybe this is what authoritarian managers need to learn, how to determine if those managed work for the organization’s well being ..

  • http://www.venturestab.com Jerome Gentoia

    You said it all with the phrase “the real reason for empowerment is to improve system effectiveness and survival”. Thanks for sharing!

  • Edith

    Congratulations – now you understand what “systems thinking” is all about.
    (Compare to your article from March 18 – reading that, I already had the impression that you didn’t really get it. Systems thinking is not about blaming, but about identifying improvement areas – just as you write in this article.)

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    Thank you. I am very familiar with systems thinking, and I probably know more about it than the people who keep blaming the system.