08/29/2011 08:14 am ET | Updated Oct 29, 2011

The Empowerment Myth: Who Is Trying to Empower You?

Have you had the experience of working with someone who wants to "empower" you? If so, then you may know how frightening this can be. I frequently hear the term "empowerment" being used in corporate settings where some person or group wants to talk about "empowering" people. Management often thinks highly of this notion and can easily jump on the empowerment bandwagon. While I am all in favor or people empowering themselves, I have seen attempts to empower others come across as a kind of personal affront.

I do understand the good intentions of those who would "empower" others. It usually has to do with allowing or encouraging decisions to be made at lower levels of the organization. To the extent that decisions get made closer to the level where the work actually takes place, this kind of empowerment could be a really great thing. In fact, my experience suggests that most people have a great deal more power and potential to be effective than they allow themselves to believe much less actually achieve. If this rings true to you, then perhaps the real question is more about becoming self-empowered.

In more common usage, empowerment has become a horribly abused term, misapplied at just about every turn. To be fair, there is an acceptable, even logical application of the term if you follow the first definition supplied by Merriam-Webster: to give official authority or legal power to (another). If someone is granting you official authority or legal power to do something, to decide something, then I suppose all is good assuming you have skill, ability or training to effectively apply the authority being granted.

However, Merriam-Webster goes on to provide a second definition meaning to enable, and a third definition, to promote the self-actualization or influence of (another person or group). It is the confluence of these latter two in corporate settings that opens the door to quite a conundrum. Consider this perspective: If someone is offering to empower you in the sense of "enabling" you, then might you somehow be "disabled" in their mind? If they are offering to empower you, might you be somehow powerless, weak or ineffective in their mind?

If you assume a well-intentioned motive behind the focus on becoming empowered, then the person could be offering something useful in the sense of promoting or encouraging your expanded self-actualization. But even here, things get a bit sticky: The dictionary tells us that self-actualization means to realize fully one's potential. On the face of it, what could be wrong with fully realizing one's potential? Who amongst us could argue that we are already realizing our full potential? No matter how well you are doing, there's always the theoretical ability to do even better.

Of course, this begs the question about whether or not you would prefer to "do better," or to improve in some way. You could be quite content where you are and have nothing egging you on to some next level of improvement. Unless, of course, there's someone else egging you on.

The conundrum I mentioned earlier begins to show up when you do, in fact, desire to improve in some way and you find yourself being confronted by the well-intentioned person who would like to "empower" you to perform differently. As I alluded to earlier, the focus on empowerment often comes with the perception that you are somehow weak or lacking in power while the one offering or encouraging your empowerment is the one holding the power you need.

Again, to be fair, the other person could actually hold the power you need in the sense that empowerment means the transfer or granting some kind of formal or legal authority. However, for the most part, empowerment has to do with an individual taking greater initiative to make improvements or to achieve certain results.

I like to think of the question this way: perhaps you always had and still have the power (ability) to improve some aspect of your life or your work but either deny it or avoid taking response-ability for the improvement. If you do have the power or ability, and deny response-ability for it, then you may well be your own biggest stumbling block. That's not to say that other people and external circumstances aren't in the way, but it is to say that you probably have choices that you may not be exercising.

In my book, "Workarounds That Work", I suggest that you consider two questions whenever you are confronted by an issue or situation in which you would like to experience improvement. Both questions have to do with self-empowerment, although the first is probably more obvious than the second: What difference could you make that requires no one's permission other than your own? If you ask this question of yourself and then take whatever action you can, you may not wind up with a perfect result, but you will get the situation moving and improving. As I'm fond of saying, you may not be perfectionally correct, but you will be directionally correct.

This then sets up the second question: What difference could you make that requires permission, cooperation or approval? This question builds on the first: If you ask and answer the first question, you may then find yourself in a much stronger position to influence others to get involved and make the improvements they can.

Both questions lead to an expanded sense of personal effectiveness and both are foundational to building self-empowerment.

How would you assess yourself in terms of effectively utilizing your own power? Are you self-empowered? Are you making the choices you have available to you or are you waiting for someone else to make them for you?

I'd love to hear from you so please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)

If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your own life, how you can take a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your own life, please download a free chapter from my new book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.