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Is Too Much Empowerment Bad?

January 1o, 2022, 4-min. read
Is too much empowerment bad?

Empowerment is generally considered a very important element of management and leadership. These days, it seems almost indispensable. Many studies have proven and reaffirmed the positive impact empowerment has on performance, job satisfaction, and a sense of belonging to the company. But could it have any negative impacts as well? And if yes, what can you do about them?

What is empowerment?

Empowerment is an expression of trust in the employee’s abilities by giving them authority, delegating responsibility including decision-making, and providing them with key information.

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Positive impacts of empowerment

Along with increased performance and better job satisfaction, which we’ve already mentioned in the introduction, empowerment has a positive impact on other areas:

  • Faster problem-solving and bigger flexibility (people doing the actual work are solving issues and making decisions, not the managers at their desk)
  • Increased productivity and work morale (people are more responsible and take bigger ownership of their tasks)
  • Higher motivation, determination and desire to overcome obstacles (it’s an issue I’m responsible for, so I will not give up as easily as if it was just something assigned to me)
  • Freeing management capacity for strategic issues (by delegating operational issues, managers free their own hands for more strategic matter)
  • Higher job satisfaction and retention (I see that I can influence things, they are meaningful)
  • Higher level of trust in higher-ups (a boss who supports his people to be self-sufficient is seen as trustworthy)

Too much of a good thing

However, it’s now become obvious that not every employee and not every type of work is suited for empowerment.

Empowerment works especially in areas where we want to strengthen creativity and people’s willingness to go the extra mile, for example by offering help to a colleague. It’s less suitable for routine type of work or in areas where we need people to follow established processes and methods.

Also, certain types of people are not mature enough for empowerment; that’s where empowerment might cause damage rather than bring benefits.

Cons of too much empowerment

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What could that look like?

  • Anarchy
    Empowerment might lead to a situation where everyone takes steps and decides according to their own judgment and values. This increases the risk of chaos, where people’s actions are not aligned with one another; they are not unified and do not coordinate their decisions, or they don’t follow the company’s goals and interests.
  • Arrogance
    Empowerment improves self-confidence. But for some people, this self-confidence might grow into overconfidence and arrogance. They are convinced of their own truth and power, they do whatever they want, and they are dismissive towards others. There’s a risk of conflicts and abuse of authority.
  • Decreased performance
    For people who have lower internal motivation, are less disciplined, or have lower work morale, empowerment might paradoxically lead to a drop in performance. They might interpret delegated authority as freedom and lack of expectations, or as an option to get a bit of relief from their workload.
Is too much empowerment bad?

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  • Leaks of sensitive information
    A key part of empowerment, besides delegation of authority, is also the transfer of important information. But some of this information might be sensitive or discreet and by transferring this information, we increase the risk that it might be leaked. And not just further inside the company but also outside of it.
  • Incorrect decisions
    By delegating decision powers, we of course assume the risk of incorrect decisions being made. And that risk increases for people who lack necessary knowledge, skills, or experience.
  • Uncertainty and stress
    Some people don’t want to have authority. They don’t want responsibility; it stresses them or they might not trust their own ability to solve issues correctly. Rather than strengthen their confidence, empowerment might strengthen their uncertainty and worries.

What can be done about it?

The risks associated with over-empowerment described above are generally outweighed by the benefits empowerment brings. What’s more, these risks can be minimized. When delegating authority to your workers, make sure you focus on the following:

  1. Clear vision, strategies, values
    By defining them, you provide a unified framework and a goal, along with the guidelines for achieving it. This way, you are minimizing the risk that everyone will do whatever they want or do things in a way that is unacceptable for the company,
  2. Feedback
    Work actively with feedback. It will enable you to make timely corrections, align with your people, and it will provide you with clear input for necessary future development,
  3. Mapping and developing competencies
    Maintain and update your knowledge regarding the abilities and skills of your people and support their development so that it goes hand in hand with broadening responsibilities,
  4. Individual agreements
    Map out the willingness and readiness of your workers to take over responsibility. Enter into individual agreements with your workers and make your clear expectations and requirements a condition of such agreements,
  5. Empower only when and where 
    You are truly prepared for other solutions than you might prefer… this will help you avoid frustration on both sides as well as demotivation of your workers, which would follow if you started interfering with the authority you delegated to them or manipulating them towards your own solutions.
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