Leadership & Employee Satisfaction:How to Prevent Empowerment from Turning Into Chaos

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Folder image Posted in: Employee Engagement, Empowerment, Leadership, Motivation, Organizational Culture, Teamwork & Collaboration

Grumpy man sitting on the floor

“Wait, you hired someone while I was on vacation? But I always get to interview people before we hire them.”

That question was merely the starting pistol to months of sulking by a team leader who was ticked off that his management had allowed an entry level person to be hired to work on another team without waiting for his input.

You would have thought someone had kicked his puppy.

No. Just an example of empowerment gone mad.

Recently, I was at a Leadership conference and was reminded of that sulking” leader” when the conversation turned to the subject of empowerment. While there were lots of subtle nuances to how people at the conference defined empowerment, one thing was clear. Pretty much everyone within earshot believed strongly in democratic empowerment throughout organizations.

Let’s just say I came up on the minority side of the discussion.

Yes, it’s been a really rough ride for businesses over the last several years and study after study telling leaders that they’re doing a crappy job of  “employee engagement” hasn’t helped them have confidence in their ability to develop and keep good people.

So it’s no wonder that when reports tell leaders that they need to empower people at work, make everybody feel that they have a voice, spread the ownership around, they jump at the chance to have a solution.

What could possibly go wrong?

A lot.

If handled deftly, empowerment is an unbelievably strong asset to businesses. It has the ability to engender confidence, commitment, and development in talent. Knowing that your boss trusts your opinion and let’s you make decisions on your own, not having to ask for approval for every little thing makes the day go by a lot easier and accelerates career growth like nothing else.

Customer and client service levels tick up when front line people can make smart decisions and pass that on to improved client experience.

Businesses benefit from both.

What businesses don’t benefit from is when empowerment turns to chaos because people confuse empowerment with power.

One is about being entrusted with the confidence, ability, and resources to make decisions on your own. The other is about thinking that no one can make a decision without your input.It sounds so simplistic and easily separate but keeping the two clear in the hands of “everyone” is a slipperier slope than you might think.

Leaders who want to come out on the profitable side of empowerment need to actively take the reins in demonstrating the difference between the two to their teams.

I learned that the hard way because, as you may have guessed, I was the leader to the sulking malcontent mentioned above.

Times had been really tough. There was no money for raises, no room for promotion, hard working people were being asked to work harder. I knew that everyone was capable of being entrusted with more empowerment and if that was going to “engage” people more during these tough times, what the heck.

Yeah, what the heck indeed.

Here’s a few of the mistakes I made that turned empowerment quickly into chaos:

  •  It was positioned as a reward for hard work and dedication as opposed to a responsibility
  • It was too individualized. As opposed to being a part of an empowerment culture, I practically genuflected as I lathered people with  individual praise that they were “great” and they could “certainly assume more responsibility”
  • It was distributed evenly. Everyone got an equal voice. Everyone was empowered.


Here’s what I didn’t know then that I know now:

  •  Empowering someone does not immediately impact their ability to make decisions that require more experience
  • Empowering people does not replace a hierarchy. Even in the flattest of organizations, if someone isn’t charged with making a final decision you’ll be going around in that circle for a really long time
  • Empowerment means that sometimes you willing give up your power to someone else because it’s the smartest decision in that instance
  • Not everyone wants to be empowered.  And they sure as heck aren’t going to tell you that when you’re heaping “you can do it” praise on them. Instead, they’re just paralyzed by daily indecision


To turn empowerment into success:

    • Make it a responsibility not a reward
    • Know what you want from it
    • Know your people
    • Create guidelines
    • Make it a part of an empowerment culture that is shared
    • Recognize if empowerment is turning into power grabs,correct the course


What do you do to turn an empowerment culture into business success?

Sandi Coryell
Keynote Speaker and Leadership Consultant Sandi Coryell works with leaders who want to bring out the best in their teams and themselves so that they can improve their creativity, teamwork, and bottom line. For Speaking or Consulting inquiries, please contact Sandi at 818-288-3483 or email at sandicoryell@thecoryellgroup.com

10 Responses

  1. Sandi,
    I love your point that people confuse “empowerment with power.” You are so right. Some people confuse empowerment with power trips. I love this article. Sharing!
    Warmly, Mary

  2. I just love the comment ’empowerment gone mad’, brings up all kinds of fun images!

  3. David says:

    Well said, Sandi – empowerment and engagement should be woven into the fabric of the organization culture yet still exist within well-defined parameters of how decisions are made and who is responsible for what. An ’empowered’ driver is not one who can drive wherever they want whenever they want…the rules of the road are there for a reason.

    Great post!


  4. Sharon O'Day says:

    I’ve been on the outside of large corporate structures (by choice, except as a consultant) for many years, choosing instead to work with teams made up of individual contributors … all of whom have to be personally responsible in order to survive. So the “empowerment” issue tends to be a non-issue. But what an interesting bird’s-eye view of the problem!

    • Sandi Coryell says:

      Thanks for commenting, Sharon. Empowerment definitely can be a mixed bag of results if people don’t understand what empowerment really means

  5. Eugene says:

    Wait, the person hired WASN’T on his team?! Wow! “Know your people” just about sums it up. If someone shows signs of being egotistical early on, additional responsibility can easily make them drunk with power.

    Great article and great insight, Sandi.

    • Sandi Coryell says:

      Thanks,Eugene! Great pick up on that detail. It absolutely was a key indicator that empowerment in this person’s hands was truly misinterpreted as “power.” Thanks for commenting!

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