Autonomy, not Empowerment

 Posted by on Mar 24, 2010  Add comments
Mar 242010

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.


Jim Highsmith

Jim Highsmith was the founding director of Cutter Consortium's Agile Product & Project Management practice.


  2 Responses to “Autonomy, not Empowerment”

  1. […] Pro Tweets New blog post: Autonomy, not Empowerment cuttertweets – Wed 24 Mar 16:47 All Things […]

  2. Jim,

    I’ve often used empowered myself, but I almost always use the phrase, “Empowered, self-directed teams…” (With the occasional self-organizing sprinkled in.) I recently read Dan Pink’s book, Drive myself, and I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts! And while I thoroughly enjoyed Dan’s book, I hadn’t considered altering my use of empowerment versus autonomy until I read your post.

    Individuals and teams desire autonomy, which according to a quick check on Wikipedia is defined as “self” + “law”; the capacity of a rational individual to make an informed, un-coerced decision. This is precisely what I want as a manager. It is not about my granting authority (empowerment), but rather enabling individuals and teams to operate autonomously.

    You’ve made me a convert. Thank you!

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