The empowerment process

Empowerment is a process.
Unfortunately, in the busy-ness of modern business it is easy to forget this fact, and to throw people into new roles ‘sink or swim’ style. In addition to the obvious disadvantages this approach has for the ‘sinkers’ it also has less obvious but equally important disadvantages for the ‘swimmers’ in that it underplays the development step that could have been possible for them if they had the right support in place to take it.

The empowerment process recognises that in parallel to a shift of the ‘concern for the task’ from the coach to the student, there also needs to be a corresponding shift in the ‘concern for the individual’ as they come to grips with the responsibilities and challenges of their new task.
The empowerment process defined here involves 5 basic stages as shown in the diagram on the right, and reflects the shift in responsibilities of two people: The delegator, who has initial responsibility for the task, and who is developing the delegatee to take on those responsibilities.
  1. TELL: Ownership for the correct execution of the task is retained by the delegator, but the work of delivering the task begins to be executed by the delegatee under close instruction of the delegator. This often involves more work for the delegator, since they will probably conduct some elements of the task almost intuitively, and will need to think through these components so that the tacit knowledge can be made explicit and transferable. In this way the delegator initially takes more responsibility for the task, not less. But the delegator also takes responsibility for the development of the delegatee through this phase. The goal of this initial phase is about enabling the delegatee to experience and observe the task in a low-risk environment.
  2. SELL: As the delegatee grows to better understand what the task involves, ‘why’ questions will inevitably and healthily emerge. These questions are crucial to the delegatee understanding what defines the quality of the task, and for developing discernment and criteria for evaluating the quality of their work themselves. During this phase the delegator transfers the ‘values’ which reflect correct execution of the task, and in so doing introduces the potential for variety in the approach providing the end result conforms to the requisite quality. This is a big investment in the delegatee, but it enables the delegatee to take more of the concern for ‘correct’ execution.
  3. COACH: The opportunities for flexibility and adaptation of the approach introduced in the SELL phase enables the delegatee to make the task their own, and the relationship between the delegator and the delegatee becomes one of ‘Coaching‘ as the delegator seeks to encourage the development of the skills of the delegatee in a non-directive manner, anbling the delegatee to innovate around their own strengths and perhaps even to surpass the capabilities of the delegator (which is the ultimate compliment to the delegator as coach).
  4. EMPOWER: As the delegatee grows in their own ability to ensure the correct execution of the task, the delegator can back right off that particular area of responsibility. However, for as long as the relationship with the delegatee (even if only as a sounding board or critical friend or champion) is productive, the delegator can continue to help the delegatee to refine their powers. Eventually however, we hope that the student will surpass the master, and will add their own insight into the knowledge-base of the business.
  5. And at some point, the delegatee will become delegator, and begin their own process of growing a new individual to take responsibility for the task.
The chart below looks at six areas of responsibility for a task, using a systematic management lens, and explores the growth of the delegatee for each of these areas through each of the stages of empowerment. From this chart, it becomes obvious that, for different tasks, the stages are also different. In some cases the steps may even be trivial, and largely stepped-over in the process of delegation, but in other situations they may be a lot more significant and crucial to a complete understanding.
The chart is not intended to be prescriptive, but more as a stimulus for thinking through the empowerment process and for prompting useful ideas and insights which may help people to better delegate.
Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard describe this need to adjust our approach as our ‘students’ develop really well in their work on Situational Leadership (TM). However, some might say that in presenting practical truths in a useful framework, they have adopted a commercial approach which can restrict people benefiting from the basic observations. Furthermore, their bi-curve model (which we are not allowed to represent here for legal reasons) fails to reflect the need for the coach to temporarily assume more responsibility for the task in the early stage, as he/she seeks to better understand their own practices in a way that can be communicated rather than simply enacted.

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