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The secret to empowerment at work

Submitted by on Monday, 1 October 20122 Comments

We’re often asked about empowerment at work and especially, how to promote healthy levels of empowerment.

In some cases this may be empowering a target group (eg middle managers, women in the organisation or local hires); in other cases we may be asked about ways to empower employees as a way to enhance employee engagement. So to start with we thought it might be helpful to be clear about…

…What empowerment really is

To understand how to empower people more effectively, we first need to be clear about the two sources of power at work. They are simply:

  • External power, and
  • Internal power

External power is the power the manager or organisation vests in the individual. How much freedom of action do you and your company allow your employees?

External power is affected firstly by policies, procedures and processes, and secondly by the immediate manager. In this previous post we looked at the 6-step model for delegating which is the basis that you, as a manager, can use, to empower your direct reports.

Internal power is the capability of the individual to accomplish the challenge before him or her. How capable is the person in accomplishing the task you have delegated?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi came up with the concept of ‘flow‘ to explain how to promote internal power. Basically, you want to make sure the tasks you are performing are neither too challenging nor too easy based on your capabilities. Have a look at the diagram below:

the secret of empowerment at work

Get the individual into this state of flow and you can say that they are ’empowered’. But how can a manager do this?

Flow – what you’re looking for

The human enters a state of flow when he or she is completely focussed on the task in hand, yet also ‘lost in thought’. Flow is an effortless and almost dream-like state. We often ‘lose the sense of time’ when in flow.

The key to getting someone else into a state of flow is to work out what the person’s talent is – we have covered this topic previously here. Our talents, or natural abilities, are a much greater determinant to achieving flow than our skills (which are learnt) are. Yet both are necessary and as they combine they make ‘capability’.

As a manager, we need to be aware of our employees’ talents and skills so that when we delegate work, we navigate them into the flow zone – the zone of greatest intrinsic empowerment.

The third factor – commitment

There is also a third factor to achieving empowerment at work – commitment.

If a person is not committed to the work, then it is highly unlikely he will reach a state of flow even if you get everything else right.

This is why the effective manager also needs to pay attention to the sources of employee engagement, covered in more depth here.

So to sum up…

To empower our colleagues we need to:

1. Delegate the power to them clearly

2. Ensure the challenge meets their capability, and

3. Constantly work on commitment and employee engagement.

If this was helpful…

…then you’ll love this. The Leadership Challenge is a hands-on two day training programme for managers who would like to sharpen up their leadership skills. Needless to say, empowerment is a major theme and one of the Five Practices taught in the programme. The programme details are here. Or feel free to contact us for a full pdf here.


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