Empowerment sure sounds like the power formula

Updated: Nov 14

Within organizations, we routinely hear the notion that we want our organization empowered to make decisions. This could be identified in a team-building workshop or highlighted when reviewing the results of organizational surveys. You may also attempt to embody empowerment when creating a mission statement. Regardless, organizations typically want an empowered team of decision-makers. However, our vantage point on the quantity and quality of empowerment may change over time with the amount of work that underwrites the empowerment. This sure sounds like the word empowerment is related to the power formula. Can you relate your organization's empowerment to the power formula?

Have you been empowered to do something in your position? This question has led me to explore the components of empowerment versus the notion that you are empowered. I continually challenge the idea that there are tremendous differences between being empowered and the framework of empowerment. To me, being empowered is a momentary decision with delegated responsibilities. Being empowered typically is quantifiable with a finite authorization accompanied by a finite outcome. Whereas, empowerment is more like the power forumula as it is the amount of work performed over time.

If you look at the power formula, power requires a quantity of work over a unit of time. How work gets completed is directly related to the force that causes a displacement and has nothing to do with the amount of time. Sometimes, my children’s rooms get thoroughly cleaned quickly and other times it seems to take weeks to accomplish. In this example, the work completed was the amount of energy to accomplish a clean room and the power is the completed room over time. Again, sometimes the power is large and sometimes it is barely even visible to establish a clean room.

In the power formula, there are just two ways to increase the power. One is to increase the amount of work completed in the same amount of time. Simplistically, if one of my kids were to clean two rooms in the same amount of time, the power would have doubled. In this example, we could remove barriers, remove resistance, or avoid the appearance that the room looks like a bomb went off in the first place.

Employees don’t just suddenly feel empowered because managers tell them they are or because companies issue statements saying it is part of the culture. Organizations must change their policies, practices, and structures to create and sustain empowerment. - David E. Bowen and Edward E. Lawler III, MIT Sloan Review

The other way to increase the power is to complete the same amount of work in less time. In the cleaning room example, they could have cleaned their rooms faster. They could maintain fewer distractions or find the motivation to allocate adrenaline to the activity. Regardless, the power increased because we got the same amount of work done in less time.

Being empowered versus creating empowerment can be related to the power formula. Being empowered is just a condition of work. It has nothing to do with a rate, making multiple decisions, or the amount of time that it takes to complete. Instead, it is just a momentary force to move an object a certain distance. Whereas, empowerment is at a rate and is the amount of work completed over time.

If we relate the power formula to our desire to create an empowered team or imbed empowerment within our mission statement, it is not solved with an instantaneous amount of work. It is not solved with a single example of empowering a team to make a decision. Instead, it must respect that time be in the formula.

There will be times when the rate of empowerment within the organization is high and there could be other times when the empowerment could be decreasing. It's our job as leaders, that if we want empowerment embedded without our organizations or our company we must find ways to give empowering authority to complete work in less amount of time. And being rigid by just making one empowered does not influence empowerment unless it is done routinely over time.

Throughout my career, I have been part of organizations that beg to be empowered and I have been in positions trying to authorize empowerment. In hierarchies of control, power is centralized. Power and empowerment are sometimes directly related to the prefix in front of the title of the position. Be it a VP, a Chief, a Sr., or a Director, in hierarchies, the control is centralized based upon the organizational hierarchy. But within a network, or within a team… a high-performance team… power is disseminated. Power is shared.

I had a leader of mine, a mentor, that I remember like yesterday he told me “You are obligated to descent.” What does that mean? It meant to me that I was continuously empowered to bring countered vantage points on a scenario. I am empowered to challenge direction, challenge a process, change practices, and make something better. In this empowerment, I was given the authorization to practice, trial, experiment, and, most importantly, fail. It wasn't given as a momentary opportunity to move an organization or make a decision, but instead a continuation of work.

Specifically, this type of leadership seems to encourage employees to generate novel ideas and think of new ways of doing things, and to help others in the workplace, volunteer for extra assignments, and be willing to support their organization outside of an official capacity. - When Empowering Employees Works, and When It Doesn’t Allan Lee, Sara Willis, and Amy Wei Tian, HBR.com

Relating empowerment to the power formula shows the importance of time when empowered. Organizations can have one-offs on empowering a group to make a decision or take an action. But if it is not done routinely and practiced, having empowerment within an organization will never come to fruition.


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