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Empowerment, That Horrible Word

Network (hierarchichal) colorWhat scientists call distributed control is usually called empowerment by management consultants. However, some experts don’t like the term. The word seems to suggest that people are “disempowered” by default and need to be “empowered” by their managers. Perhaps that was indeed its original meaning, and I agree that this could be seen as disrespectful.

On the other hand, I believe networked systems are more powerful than hierarchical systems, because it’s so much harder to destroy them. By distributing control in an organization we not only empower workers, we also empower the managers. Maybe we should see it as empowerment of the system, not of the people. Remember the last time you were sick? I bet you felt quite powerless as an individual person against that tiny distributed virus. I’m just glad your distributed immune system was even more powerful, or else I had one reader less!

Plenty of arguments in favor of empowerment are cited in management literature, such as improving worker satisfaction, increasing profitability, and strengthening competitiveness. All of it is true. But never forget that the real reason for empowerment is to improve system effectiveness and survival. We enable the organization to be more resilient and agile, by delegating decision making and distributing control.

All over the world, knowledge workers are becoming better educated and more able to take matters in their own hands. And the more educated people are, the less effective authoritarian power works. In many organizations teams understand their work better than their managers do. Therefore the primary concern of management should be empowerment, not supervision. We aim for a more powerful system, not better controlled people.

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