Empowerment Is Bunk – InPowerment Tips

How many years of Women’s Empowerment and Employee Empowerment have we lived through? How many of us have opted out in the brain drain, tired of waiting to be really empowered and seeking something more – autonomous?

This question captivated me when I started InPower Coaching last year. In my experience and the experience of the powerful leaders I know and work with, success is not derived from the external power we’re given, but from the power we bring out of ourselves to amplify it into real world results.

Imagine my excitement when I found this video by Daniel Pink, author of Drive (and other amazing books that will blow your mind if you haven’t read them), distinguishing empowerment from autonomy.

Empowerment is a sham

Daniel declares boldly that “empowerment is a sham” and “flexibility” is something employers allow to demonstrate that “we’re slightly less maniacally controlling than we were before.” He believes that both empowerment and flexibility reflect “a mistaken view of who has the power.” He believes employers should be thanking us for showing up at work every day!

Daniel is advocating that leaders work with the human urge for self-direction and that we manage our staffs with autonomy, which requires us all to develop our internal – inpowerment – resources more intentionally. As he explains, this gives the whole idea of work-life balance a new spin too, and makes the move towards “work-life blend” more productive and rational. (For more on work-life baloney, read my earlier thoughts).

InPowering Career Coaching Tips

We all have two ways of looking at any advice like this, as leaders and as employees (unless we’re entrepreneurs, in which case it’s good to think about new ways of motivating clients). So here’s how to approach adapting autonomy into your leadership skill set.

As leaders: How can you work with your employee’s desire for autonomy and still deliver results? Each staff member will be a little different so getting in tune with each of them is a good start, but the fundamental secret is to refine your skill at describing what success looks like so clearly that they can see it and want it themselves. Give them the opportunity to contribute to that vision of success and you’ve got them bought-in. Then set them free and let them know what resources (including your time and energy) they can call on and when you need their answer. Encourage their creativity, and be sure to follow up at the due date. Hold them accountable. Some people might find this uncomfortable, but your highest performers will find it exhilarating and the rest will grow from the discomfort. Test the waters and start with small things if this seems out of character for you or them.

As employees: I can see those of you working for a controlling boss rolling your eyes and thinking I’m dreaming. But my advice to you is the same as it is to everyone else – ask for autonomy. This ask doesn’t sound like, “boss, can I go off on my own for a few weeks? See ya!” at which time you’ll get a skeptical look. It sounds like, “Hey boss! What does success on this project look like for you? How will you know we’ve made it?” Get them talking and when you can see it very clearly, say, “I’ve got an idea! Let me run with it for a few hours/days/weeks. I’ll get back to you no later than (insert specific date/time here).” And then go do it and be sure to follow up on or before that date/time. If you demonstrate that you make good use of autonomy, you can earn more of it from anyone.

In either of these scenarios, you’re getting to a point where you can see success and sharing that intention with others who want that success too. Then you’re trusting yours – or others’ – abilities to make significant progress in a self-directed fashion. In setting your intention so clearly, specific to a date/time, and delivering on your promises of accountability, you are training yourself and others you work with – above, below or alongside you – to manage autonomously.

Start with tasks appropriate to the situation, experience and skill level of those doing the work, but start. And if you’re the one doing the work, once you have the feel of how to make the best use of autonomy and have built the trust with your boss, stretch yourself and see how much you can do! Whatever you do, don’t let a failure or setback convince you that autonomy is not a powerful management tool. Adjust, revise and repeat. This is how the world gets better.

Photo Credit: Kim Seng

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  1. says

    I like the idea of letting them help in goal setting; this may be more pratically done during performance reviews. One method that you hint at is to give them an idea of how the project/joy ought to look when done and by what date, then let go of the urge to micromanage.

    Along with your suggestion of following up I would want to set the schedule with the employee so they know at “x” points in the project that they will be expected to be within this range of completion. This way they are less likely to be lax.

    • says

      Hi Alex – I agree with all your points, though I would suggest that allowing them to “own” the smaller goals in between performance reviews is a great way to help them develop their own leadership muscles. Really being able to define success in a meaningful way – for yourself and the organization – is quite an important skill to develop and the more capable your staff is in developing it the easier your job becomes! Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts!

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