The Empowerment Myth.

by David Alan Brown - a Cognisium member


Organizations that allow the definition of empowerment to shift from personal success to

institutional culture are in danger of failing. I have often been called to consult programs that are

in crisis, often because of a leadership void. In an effort to stay alive, many adopt an attitude of

empowerment that leads all stakeholders to believe they are entitled to participate in any

activity, every decision, every idea and every dispute. What results is chaos and, occasionally,

outright mission failure.


True empowerment is a powerful tool. Leaders empower people with the resources they require,

the political clout to take action and a clear definition of success for the individual and the

company. Good people managers forward their vision through careful assessment of a

stakeholder’s skills and intentions plus a strong dose of encouragement and appreciation.

Somewhere along the line, usually when leadership is absent or weak, empowerment can come

to mean an egalitarian view of all people (good when it comes to respect and rights, not so good

when it comes to talents and skills) coupled with a belief that all stakeholders have an equal

stake in (and therefore opportunity to shape) the context and culture of the place. Suddenly

everything requires a vote, unqualified volunteers are handling vital tasks and political

gamesmanship runs rampant.


The effects are disastrous:

● Productivity drops because the mechanics of groupthink require time, inclusion, expert

facilitation and consideration. Tired and bored stakeholders who have no expertise or

interest in mundane decisions are required to sit through decision making. A busy Board

of Trustee member should not be expected to have an opinion on the direction of the

lines in the parking lot, though I once saw this exact situation in a group whose culture

required everyone’s “empowered” opinion in order for decisions to be reached.

● Simple decisions can cause major disenfranchisement. I once watched a committee

who was “empowered” to create a very public brand for a campaign present the results

of weeks of research and consideration. Then, after input from the entire leadership

panel, the President walked to the whiteboard, casually drew his vision and (partly