Empowering isn't just giving away power

When thinking about ways to empower a team, then it’s worth stopping for a minute and consider the meaning of the word empower.

em·pow·er /əmˈpou(ə)r/

  1. give (someone) the authority or power to do something. synonyms: authorize, entitle, permit, allow, license, sanction, warrant, commission, delegate, qualify, enable, equip
  2. make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights. synonyms: emancipate, unshackle, set free, liberate Too often, we only think about empowering as giving away power, but if we miss the part where we make team members stronger, then it fails inevitably. And we keep wondering why team members don’t display more autonomy and initiative.

In other words, what’s the point in giving people authority to decide if they don’t know how or are not confident enough to decide?

So the question left behind is how can we tell whether people have the capacity to take authority? If it’s up to someone to assess and decide, then doesn’t that person hold the power that’d be given away?

To be fully consistent it should be up to everyone to decide for themselves. Then how to achieve that? The Constitution in Holacracy is one answer.

With a Constitution, power isn’t given from one to another hand. The ex-CEO cedes power to the Constitution. Power resides in the Constitution and anyone who understands it can take power from it. The key is then to make people understand the Constitution. The more they understand about the Constitution the more confident they are to take authority.

In adopting the Constitution we can say that more power is created. The Constitution acts as an infinite pool of power.

So going back to the definition of the word empower, in the first definition, power is a zero-sum game: if I give it to you then I don’t have it anymore. In the second definition, power is a non-zero-sum game, power creates power.

Until everyone understand enough of the Constitution to take power, some decisions still have to be taken. In Holacracy it is the job of the lead links to draw power from the Constitution to make them in each circle during the time of transition.

While trying to empower a team, let’s not blame them for not taking power.