top of page

Can you empower without losing your power?

Updated: Apr 15

Last month, an average of 30% of French gas stations were out of gas due to a strike in refineries. This caused a major disruption in the activity of many, including professions like nurses or food delivery. It forced many independent hand-workers to stop their activity.

What is amazing is that only 90 workers from a minority trade union went on with the strike after the main unions reached a rather quick agreement with the two major oil-companies Total and Esso. As chaos went on with many stations closed, people had to queue often for several hours in order to reach the stations that remained opened, with the hope to refill their tanks. It became blatant that a handful of people from a minority union had the power to affect the activity of millions of people.

In this article, I address the issue of the core nature of power and how to overcome the common fear among managers of losing their power when comes the time to empower their teams. I deduced from this the 6 conditions for a fruitful empowerment.

A. Power & Power games

According to Michel Crozier, French sociologist, power is the ability of certain individuals or groups to act upon other individuals or groups. Power comes from controlling something important for the other or for the organisation itself – what Crozier call “control of a relevant uncertainty”.

With this definition, it is quite obvious that the hardcore communist union that blocked French refineries had a lot of power. As Crozier points out, power is not an attribute or a status. It is relational.

Regaining strategic safety

So, how can an individual or an organisation reduce a strategic uncertainty? Either they reduce their dependance on a specific uncertainty factor. This is what Europe is currently desperately trying to do with Russian gas by trying to develop alternative sources of energy. Or they reduce the capability of the other to control this uncertainty. This is what the French government tried to do by activating the legal requisition of some 13 workers on strike (which caused a political debate that is out of our scope here despite being part of the power game).

Many companies are averse to uncertainty. They will do everything they can to reduce the leveraging power of their employees on what they consider key uncertainties

For instance, they create piles of rules for compliance and they consider any step out of the requirements as a severe fault, even if respecting all these rules may impair business, turn into a nightmare for their teams or even create ethical dilemmas.

ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems are also a great tool to lessen the power of operators, for instance by imposing to all operators the suppliers authorised by the system, or by imposing only the pre-set prices, suppressing any room for specific negotiations. In many large groups, by implementing or re-designing ERP, power has been transferred from the teams in charge of clients or projects to the procurement, purchasing, or management control departments. This is why any change in the Information Systems is so touchy. Whatever the good reasons in terms of efficiency, profitability and risk management, “technical” changes imply changes in the rules of the game of power for many stakeholders.

Let’s add that in many places since the corona the level of electronic control has raised along with remote management. (On remote management see my article: “Remote Control?

Political games have always been part of leadership. For some leaders, games of power are only a necessary pathway to implement a vision. For others, this is the core of their activities. We want to focus here on this tricky question: is empowerment compatible with keeping one’s power?

B. When empowerment comes in the way of holding onto one’s power

We can argue that in an extremely volatile, uncertain and even chaotic world, more control is counterproductive. Indeed, in such an environment you need your teams to be innovative, agile and swift. There is no time for the information to make its way up hierarchical lines and wait for experts to think over the best response. This is why in many fields, raising the level of autonomy and empowering teams has become a necessity. But what is empowerment exactly?

Empowerment is a transfer of power from the manager (or the company) to the teams.

In the past decade, I have met many managers who agree on the interest of empowerment but eventually are unable to implement it. They often come up with questions such as: “I agree to empower my team, but what if they do not do what I want?”, or “I agree to delegate, but eventually I will have to do the work myself because my team members lack expertise. “.  These questions are interesting as they signal a fear for loosing control on key uncertainties. More specifically they are about losing power or fearing accountability on dimensions for which one has to let go of full control. Is it then possible to answer these questions while creating the conditions for a fruitful empowerment?


C. The 6 conditions for a fruitful empowerment

1. The first condition seems obvious. However, it is often forgotten. 

If you want to transfer your power to your team, you need to have power (leverage on some key uncertainties)

If you are squeezed within a rigid management control system by your own hierarchy or your company, you may have not much power to transfer to others. Your first stake would then be to regain power for yourself.

Here comes our first paradox: The more you have power on the system, the more you can empower.

2. Be really people focused 

Empowerment is meaningful if you really support your teams in their development and create the conditions for their success. This implies detecting for each team member their best talents and creating opportunities for them to express them. This requires a culture of developmental feed-back, initiative and risk taking (which includes fully accepting mistakes as part of the learning and development process). This is feasible only if your management style shifts from “Command & Control” to “Support & Coach”, which might be considered by some as letting go of your power. But over time, empowered teams most often reach higher performance while increasing their capabilities. Raising the collective level of capability and reaching better results will in return give you more leverage on the larger system.

This is the second paradox: the more you empower, the more your power grows.

3. Have a clear vision, communicate it to your team and check that is it is understood.

At a higher level of leadership development, you focus primarily on the purpose and the impact on the system (corporate, economic, social, environmental …), rather than on immediate operational results. Vision, purpose, contribution and values become the main guidelines for decision-making and arbitrage.

Within the empowerment process, these guidelines need to be shared with your team who become co-owners of the vision. This is highly motivating for all. In order to achieve this, you need a clear vision, communicate it to your team and check that is it is understood. An important part of your management will now focus on helping your team connect their actions to the guideline of vision, purpose and values. Because this leadership brings more motivation and engagement global performance is meant to rise.

This is the third paradox: Shifting your focus from your direct technical and operational leverages to vision, purpose and impact will probably bring better collective operational results, and consequently bring you more leverage and power on the global system.

4. Activate a systemic mindset

In order to match the three previous conditions, you need to activate a systemic mindset. It is about understanding how interactions between different forces and stakeholders will impact the collective result. Contrary to the causal-linear or analytical model, the main point in the systemic approach is not about causes and consequences but rather about interactions and leverage points.

From an empowerment and leadership viewpoint, activating a systemic mindset goes with embracing the former three paradoxes.

5. Foster the conditions for trust

Trust is the oil in the engine – and antidote to games of power. There is trust when a partner or team member behaves according to what you expect from them, which means that there is a low degree of unpredictability in their actions. To refer to Crozier, if someone or a group has a high degree of unpredictability in their actions on a strategic uncertainty for you, they have a lot of power on you. Trust is therefore the antidote to games of power. 

Obviously, in order to empower your teams, you need to trust them. If you base your empowerment on shared vision and purpose and make sure that these are shared, you create a shared motivating framework that reduces significantly the degree of unpredictability.

But trust has to go both ways. This is why it is so important to create the conditions for your team to trust you as a leader. Part of the empowerment process is to create a safe space for your team to grow, develop and take initiatives. In addition to this, if you really get out of your way to detect and provide them with real professional opportunities, you will certainly boost the trust they have in you. 

Empowerment is a virtual circle as far as trust is concerned. 

As important is to be aware of the factors that could be considered by your team as a breach of trust. There are quite a few. Let’s quote here some, as not being authentic, not walking your talk, returning with no significant reason to hands-on and control, or not bringing the adequate support to each of your team members.

Let’s emphasise that results different from what you expect or mistakes made by team members do not appear to be good reasons to suspend empowerment. You definitely can improve these situations within the empowerment process. Going back on-hands in such situations would be most probably motivated by your own fear and would lead to a disruption of trust.

6. Anticipate and communicate about the situations that require reversing the direction of the empowerment.

This is the protection net for you and your company. There are circumstances such as a crisis, or a betrayal by a team member (for instance major breach of the vision or the ethics) that may require your direct intervention as a leader.

From a broader standpoint, what you want to reach is a chosen, trust-based interdependence, within the framework of a shared vision and purpose. This doesn’t exclude an embedded mechanism or contingency plan, should some actors be willing to take control over the system, exclude key stakeholders or divert the system from its agreed purpose.

My suggestion is that empowerment may be understood within the scheme of symmetry. To some extent, empowering your team goes with your team being ready to empower you when needed or required.

The trust based dynamic of empowerment needs to be subtle in order to be fruitful. We suggest that you check the 6 conditions described above and consider the paradoxes within. Feeling fully comfortable with these paradoxes is a prerequisite for you and your team to benefit from all the possibilities of empowerment without losing your power.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page