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How to empower employees in the workplace: Don't

Editor's note: Are you still trying to figure out how to empower employees in the workplace? In this CIO Minute video, SearchCIO columnist Joseph Flahiff suggests that the best way to empower your employees is, well, to stop trying. Instead, create opportunities for workers to take responsibility  by delegating decisions, not just tasks. For those who accept the challenge, empowerment will follow. The transcript of his remarks has been edited for clarity.

People need to stop trying to empower people.

Leaders, you can't empower anyone. You can create an opportunity for people to take on empowerment, or for them to take on that leadership, but they have to want to do it.

You can create the opportunities. You have to do that, though, by giving away your authority. Yeah, that is kind of a weird thing. If you want people to really be empowered, don't delegate work to them.

How to empower employees in the workplace: Don't delegate work

I know, it's crazy; but, in fact, you should never delegate work again. You should, however, delegate decisions. Only when you delegate decisions do you actually create the opportunity for people to be empowered. Now, they have to take up that mantle and say, "OK, I'll make this decision." They'll often want to push it back to you because that's what we grew up with.

People need to stop trying to empower people.

Many of us have lived through decades of leaders telling us what to do. Parents told you what to do; in school, teachers told you what to do; in college, your professors told you what to do; at your first job, your boss told you what to do. This is how leaders work: They tell people what to do.

It doesn't really work anymore, though. That works when you have a one up, one down relationship --where one person has the knowledge and then other person is doing the work. That's the parental relationships. That's the teacher-student relationship.

In technology and in knowledge work, that really isn't the case anymore. If you think about it, the people that you hire to do this work are freakishly smart. They know a lot. They definitely know a lot more about their work than you do. And, you may know how it fits into the greater puzzle. So there is a symbiotic relationship that you have to have.

Don't think that you can't tell people what to do. [But] you need to create opportunities for them to be empowered. You need to delegate decisions.

About the author:
Joseph Flahiff is an internationally recognized leadership and organizational agility expert at Whitewater Projects Inc. He has worked with Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, startups and publicly traded firms, where he has been recognized as an experienced, pragmatic and innovative adviser. He is the author of Being Agile in a Waterfall World: A practical guide for complex organizations. Learn more at

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When thinking about how to empower employees in the workplace, where do you focus?
Interesting resume article. This is part of my company's chosen management approach. From the point of view of system/organization stability, I suggest that it could be "delegate decisions, with predefined scope". We can say that this "scope" represents risk/opportunity of decisions to make, and worker's maturity in concerned domain. Anyway, to empower employees in the workplace, we should also focus on implicit and explicit needs of workers, for example, following Maslow's model.
Hi Xlnguyn, 
Agreed, the decision should have a well-defined domain of responsibility.  
In considering the worker's maturity, I think we often drastically underestimate what people are capable of handling. Our employees make life and death decisions every day at home, in their car, and with their children. There is an over sensitivity and risk aversion in many leaders. (not all leaders but many that I run into). The key is to limit the domain, as you said, so that if they do fail, they can fail forward. 
Failure is a dirty word in most organizations. It shouldn't be. Failure is how you learn quickly.  If you tried to learn to ski by never falling, it would take a long long time. But you learn to ski on the bunny slope where falling isn't too dangerous.  It is a balancing game.  

Thanks for commenting Xlnguyn!
Keep in touch.
Joseph Flahiff
Have you addressed somewhere, the second half of the equation, which is for management not to renege on 'granting permission' for decision-making?