I’ve never really liked the word empowerment, it’s just an acronym for delegation. The dictionary defines delegation as—authorizing subordinates to make certain decisions, and empowerment as—give or delegate power or authority. Many people, myself included, have used the word empowerment to mean something more than delegation, but that extra meaning has been fuzzy. Empowerment has been used in conjunction with self-organizing teams, but often been carried too far, as trying to delegate far more authority to agile teams than was prudent. Similarly, as projects grew from a single team to multiple teams, certain decisions had to be made by specialty teams. So were these teams empowered, or not? Were they “empowered” or “pseudo-powered.”
Empowerment also denotes conveying a privilege upon a team. There is a benevolence factor here—managers giving up some of their power to the team. It’s given, not self-generated by the team. The team, and individuals, have no power other than that bestowed on them by someone else. “Indeed, just consider the very notion of ‘empowerment.’ It presumes that the organization has the power and benevolently ladles some of it into the waiting bowls of grateful employees. That’s just a slightly more civilized form of control,” says Daniel Pink (reference below).
Certainly the emphasis on empowerment has encouraged teams to take more responsibility and act independently, but there must be a better word for what we really mean, a word that is grounded in the individual, not granted from above. And, drum roll please, that word is Autonomy.
The dictionary definition of autonomy mentions personal independence and self-reliance. Daniel Pink’s wonderful new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, identifies autonomy as one of the three fundamental intrinsic motivators. “Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives,” says Pink. Research gathered by Pink backs up these claims, “for example, researchers at Cornell University studied 320 small businesses, half of which granted workers autonomy, the other half relying on top-down direction. The businesses that offered autonomy grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented firms and had one-third the turnover.”
So I’m a convert. No more empowerment. Empowerment is about decision making, power conferred from one to another. Autonomy is about a fundamental human need. Leaders can help establish environments in which people’s autonomy need can be fed, but they can’t delegate autonomy to either a person or a team.