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Empowerment: What does it really take to empower others?

Written by: Ralph Twombly
Published: Wed Jul 12 2017 21:59:44 GMT-0400 (EDT)

Please look at the following and circle (T or F) true or false.

  • T or F – Employees who feel like they are “owners” make better decisions for the organization.
  • T or F – The average employee is only giving their institutions a fraction of what they have to offer because the institution doesn’t know how or what to ask for.
  • T or F – When employees closest to the customer make decisions critical to the customer experience, those customers are more satisfied.
  • T or F – Decisions that occur in the organization closest to the point where the issue originates create more efficient and effective environments.


If you circled three or more T’s in the boxes above, you should continue to read on.  If you didn’t circle three, you may want to read on anyway, you never know, I might change your mind!

The Power of Words

Words have always had power for me, and on more than one occasion I have noticed that commonly used business words mean something different to almost every audience. As an example, think of words like “Attitude”, “Success”, “Happiness”, “Culture” and “Empowerment”. Each of these terms are frequently used in our business conversations, yet I would wager that if I asked the meaning of them to a group, I would get everything from lists of detailed descriptions to the explanation of an intuitive belief.  On one hand, I am grateful that in 2017 we are having conversations that include these powerful words, but I’m also a little perplexed that they mean something different to each of us, still.

So now what?

You might be waiting for me to give you clear definitions, or maybe pick a word and clear the whole matter up. Well, it’s coming! With all our work within organizations and teaching groups of people at Priority Learning, we are realizing we are ready to expand our reach. When we can work directly with an organization, team, and individuals, we can clear up the confusion and work to set a clear plan for organizational change. But what about the rest? We are realizing that we need to broaden our reach, and we have chosen to begin that by homing in on “Empowerment” – what it means, and how to go about implementing empowerment at the leadership, team, and ultimately the organizational level.

Lorraine and I have set out to write our first book – and we chose Empowerment to write about!  Goodness knows we could have chosen something easier, however, we felt that if we could put together not only a strong definition but a pathway for business to really adopt an empowerment culture, we could make a grand difference. Ready or not world, here we come!

The research begins

We fancy ourselves pretty good researchers, and so we got right to work on finding everything good we could on empowerment. We also have our own experience to call on from the 22 years since Priority Learning was established, as well as hundreds of clients we feel represent fantastic resources. We have seen great successes and dismal failure along the way, and if there is one thing we know, it’s that we learn from one another.

Here is what we found in research: it was full of reasons to empower people, from ROI articles to the feel-good experiences empowerment fosters, but we came up short on the “how to’s” we were hoping would back our own knowledge. Undaunted, we pushed ahead and began to use the good stuff we found, comingled with our own experiences as our foundation. As this work continues to evolve, it looks like both will reinforce each other. We think of ourselves as a big collection of knowledge and experience here at PL, and we are off on this new adventure with great energy and enthusiasm.

This article

For our July 2017 newsletter, I want to simply take some time to share what we have learned about some of the ‘prerequisites for empowerment’. Your baseline, if you will. If you are looking to find out if your organization is ready for something big, or if you are an individual thinking of something great for your team/group, we have something for you.  The prerequisites are best if viewed in the form of a check list and because I’m writing the article and I love checklists, here you go:

Empowerment: Organizational Prerequisites

  • Time – The allocation of time and available resource to embark on a long effort to educate the workforce regarding how the business really operates. An initiative like this is a true cultural change in most organizations, and constitutes what an individual might call a ‘change in lifestyle’, as the organization must really change at its core. There are a lot of benefits, but the organization needs to see this a critical commitment, and not an effort to be abandoned when it gets “busy.”
  • Leadership willingness – Managers and leaders willing to allow employees an opportunity to learn, fail and take ownership. For empowerment to work, the organization and leaders must let go of decisions, and allow others to take on ownership. Essentially, change the way they think about their role. This is a shift from the ‘parent mindset’ to the ‘coaching mindset’ for all leadership so they must be willing to change themselves.
  • Employees with initiative – People willing to take on more responsibility in decision-making, along with the accompanying ownership for those decisions.  We find in our work that this is more often the case than not. Meaning, employees of all abilities are generally hungry for more responsibility as long as it helps with customers and team mates. Most people see this as building their career and key skills, and not additional work, as it enhances their market value if they leave the organization.
  • Resources – This is a fluid or living system and any living system will need a process, qualifications, and checks-and-balances to keep accountability high and to adjust to changing times.  Organizations who build a strong empowerment foundation for people have a system in place to do so. This is a well thought out, planned implementation, not just feel-good words of encouragement.


Empowerment: Individual Leader Prerequisites

  • Patience – The will to understand that people all learn at different speeds and have differing levels of ability. This work is done inside a slow and method-driven process, and it takes time. Foundationally, it changes the organization and its relationship with its people, product, and customer. This is no snap of the fingers solution, and only perseverance will pay dividends.
  • Coach vs. Director – The Coach will have to challenge the person with the problem to solve it themselves through great questions and collaboration, and employees take ownership for their choices.  In the 21st century workplace many managers and leaders are parental figures, and, like parents, drop into solution-mode when any problem arises.  This solution mode inhibits learning and puts ownership back on the leader. This is not abandonment of employees; this is quality preparation, checks-and-balances and accountability.
  • Belief in their people – Coaches have a fundament belief that people are not reaching anything close to their real potential, and it is our job to help them reach that potential.  The leader will have to be prepared to work with their people through self-doubt, failure, success, and fluctuations in between. Sincere belief in people is foundational in empowerment. 
  • An understanding – The awareness of how empowerment works, and understanding that some changes will be unpredictable. It is critical for leaders within an empowerment initiative to know how empowerment works, and they also need to understand that these changes may result in losing their people to other opportunities inside and outside of the organization.

The Book!

Over the last several months we at Priority Learning, specifically myself and Lorraine with the careful guidance of Noelle Castle (our Author’s Coach and Editor) have been building the foundation for a book we are hoping will be of value to business.  We wanted something for both the profit and non-profit worlds which was easy because we find that there is little difference between the two when it comes to the thing we think we excel at - people. Further, in choosing a topic we wanted something that we felt would intrigue business people, and be of practical use to our friends in the business community. 

Here is a promise:

We are going to give everyone who wants to build empowerment from catch phrase to practical application all they will need – soon! In the interim, check off the boxes and see how prepared you think you are.  I will be back with more next month.

Have a great summer and if you are out on the water, wave.  That is me driving or being driven on Raine. See you on Casco Bay.

Warmest regards,

Ralph Twombly

Ralph Twombly

In the 20 years since starting Priority Learning, Ralph has facilitated countless learning experiences and has conducted training for thousands of managers and leaders. With over 30 years of leadership development and organizational development background and work, Ralph continues to build relationships with client companies all over the U.S.