AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

When & How to Empower (vs Delegate)

Copyright 1998 AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc.

When to Empower

Courtesy Stuart Miles,

Courtesy Stuart Miles,

Empowerment has definitely become the most overused buzz word of the nineties.The literature has everyone convinced of our obligation to empower our employees. While we at AXIS believe that empowering front-line employees to work in unencumbered service to your customers is generally a good thing, empowering employees with every responsibility that comes along probably doesn’t make sense. There needs to be a reason to hand off a task; one that has the needs of the business at its foundation.
So that leaves leaders wondering, “When is it appropriate and useful to empower employees?” We’d like to provide the  following short guide to help you answer this question.

Management Options

Very broadly speaking, a manager’s job is to see to it that “the work gets done.” In the old days that meant doing all the planning and making all the decisions. Today’s manager has more options:she may make all the decisions and do the work herself, or she may delegate work to employees, or she may empower employees to make the decisions and do the job themselves. Each option carries with it certain assumptions about responsibility,authority and accountability as indicated in the chart below. Which option you choose will depend on the situation, but generally consider these issues.

Responsibility: the onus of doing the task. The person with responsibility for a task is the one who’s hands actually get dirty doing it.
Authority: the power to make important decisions about the task like how and when it gets done and what resources will be allocated to doing it. Havingauthority for a task implies that you have ultimate control over it and its outcome.
Accountability: living with the natural and logical consequences of the results of the task. This implies that you are directly linked to the results of thetask ? if something goes wrong, you fix it; if it goes very right, you take a bow.

Management Options and Their Implications

 If the manager chooses to do it herself, then she has  all the authority, responsibility, and accountability and the employee has the possibility of providing input (if the manager asks)
If the manager chooses to delegate, then she has some of the responsibility, and all of the authority and accountability and the employee has most of the responsibility, but little or no authority and no accountability
If the manager chooses to empower, then she has some share of the accountability and the employee has all of the responsibility and authority and most of the accountability

Doing it yourself

While for most busy managers this option may seem ludicrous, it is surprising how many managers actually end up doing a task themselves rather than trust it to another person. The advantage of doingit yourself is that you have ultimate control in how and when it gets done. While clearly you can’t do everything yourself, itstill may be appropriate to maintain ownership of certain tasks, for example, tasks that truly require the perspective ofa manager’s position (perhaps long-range planning) or the connections and relationships that the position allows (e.g., negotiating contracts with unions or vendors).

We often hear managers lament that by the time they teach someone how to do a task, they could have done it twice themselves. And who has time for that! Clearly, unless there are other compelling reasons to hand them off, you should probably think twice about empowering people to do infrequently performed tasks.


Some people equate delegation with empowerment. In our minds there is a significant distinction. When a manager delegates, she still maintains ownership of the activity. It’s as if she is saying,”This is my responsibility, but I simply don’t have enough hands to do it.” Delegating means that she enlists the “help” of others to get a job done, but takes responsibility for how and when it happens.
The advantage is that the manager still has a significant amount of controlover the job. The disadvantage is that while there is some benefit to having an extra pair of hands, it generally doesnot save much time in the end because of all the “supervision” required to tell someone else how to do your job.Managers most often use delegation in situations where they are still being held ultimately accountable for an outcome, and this makes sense.It is why we think long and hard before giving our teenagers the keys to the car ? after all, who ultimately is liablefor the actions of minors?


Empowerment implies a complete hand-off of responsibility, authority andat least some, if not all, accountability for a task. Empowerment is an appropriate option when:
1.  You want employees to act like owners, taking responsibility for the health of the business
2.  Someone less expensive than a manager could do the job competently, perhaps with
a little coaching
3.  Someone besides the manager is in a better position because they are closer to the situation,
have more expertise, have more time, or could do it more efficiently
4.  There is an opportunity touse empowerment as a development opportunity for an employee

When it is done well, the advantages are many: greater productivity,higher quality, increased customer and employee satisfaction. If there is a down side, it is the increased risk that ensueswhen more people have decision authority. This risk can be greatly decreased, however, with a proper “hand-off” process.

Making Empowerment Work

In order to successfully empower employees, you need to commit to a thoughtfuland thorough “hand-off” process. Use the steps below to help you prepare an employee or a team for a new responsibility.

1. Define the task/responsibility

The hardest part of this step will be remembering what it was like todo the task for the first time. You will need to make explicit all those steps or tricks that have become automatic for you. Trymapping out all the steps, decision points, etc. that you go through when you perform the task. Have someone else who knows thetask check it over to be sure it is complete.

Another part of defining the task is clarifying the performance standards.This is critical information. Your employees will want to know what a good job should look like. Sometimes it is easier toidentify the standards by asking what an unacceptable job would look like and using that to define your minimum standards. Lastly think through what resources your employees will be need to performthe task. How much time should they allocate to doing it? (Remember to allow for their learning curve ? they won’t be as fast you are at first). Will they need any equipment, special information, references or job aids, etc.

2. Determine preparatory needs

Once you know what the task is, think about the best way for someoneto learn how to do it. Design some activities that will allow them the opportunity to practice doing it before they “go live”and have to do it for real. You should also consider how the learning/training will occur. Are you thebest person to teach them? Would it be more effective or efficient for them to get formal training? How soon can thetraining take place and how long will it be before they are ready to take the task on officially?

3. Establish a schedule

With some tasks the hand-off will be quick and all at once. For others you may want to ease employees into it to build both your and the employees’ confidence that they can do it successfully. Considerthese five options below for a more gradual hand-off:

1. Watch me? The manager does the task and the employee watches or provides input
(this may be part of the training).
2. Do it together?The manager and employee do the task together sharing
the responsibility and control.
3. You try?The employee does the job,but under the manager’s supervision.
4. Let me check it?You let the employee perform the task, but review the end product
and provide feedback before it “goes out the door.”
5. Go for it?The employee goes solo.

Whether you do a gradual or immediate hand-off (or anything in-between),you will need to clarify the boundaries of authority that go with the task as well as review the consequences thatare connected with the results ? both good and bad. Don’t let an employee operate under any false assumptions or you both mayget some rude surprises.

4. Resolve concerns

We knew a manager whose team members believed that he was arbitrarilyholding on to all the real control in their department. We knew the manager to be quite empowering and had given histeam a good deal of authority over the months. When we asked the team why they felt this way about him, they said it wasbecause he had denied their request to take on a certain responsibility. When we later asked the manager about it, he smiledand explained what had happened. He said the task they asked for was highly dependent on a long and trusting relationship he had built with their board of directors. That, and the legal knowledge the task required, made it inappropriate and risky for the team to take on. We recognized his logic and realized that he had simply neglected to share his rationale with the team, leaving them to form their own assumptions about his motives.

Empowerment will only work if both sides have the opportunity to share and address any concerns they may be harboring.

Managers should ask: “Is there anything that worries me about handing off this responsibility? What would the employee need to do to allay my fears?” They should convey their honest answers to these questions to their teams so that they have a chance to understand and possibly respond.

Similarly employees should ask themselves: “Is there anything that worries us about taking on this responsibility? What can our manager do to make us more comfortable and confident about taking on
the job?”

This last step rounds out the negotiation process and ensures that empowerment is handled responsibly and with success for everyone in mind.


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