Articles

Empowerment is Not the Same as Democracy

August 10, 2017 - By Wendy Lambourne, Director, MA Industrial and Organisation Psychology Registered Psychologist with SA Medical & Dental Council

Democracy is when the people decide.  Furthermore, in a democratic system where there is ‘one person, one vote’ everyone is equal.

A precondition for empowerment, however, is inequality, not equality.  For those in authority to give up authority they should have it in the first place.  Before power can empower and thus be legitimate, there should be inequality between those in authority and those they exercise authority over.

This is true of anyone in authority – parents, teachers, coaches or managers.  Without the requisite authority to do so, they cannot enable those in their charge.

When teachers lose the authority to discipline; then students can no longer learn because the teacher can no longer teach; she is too busy trying to restore a vestige of order in the classroom.  Similarly, if parents were to be prohibited from punishing their children, they would breed monsters rather than young adults fit for society.

Empowerment, therefore, is not about replacing autocratic behaviour with democratic behaviour since there is room for both in any legitimate relationship of power. This can be seen when one considers the boss one works for willingly.  The ‘want to’ boss can behave in a soft and democratic manner by listening, being approachable, supportive and sympathetic.  Equally, she can act in an autocratic way by setting direction, assigning responsibility, giving instructions, taking disciplinary action and so on.

Those on the receiving end of the ‘want to’ boss’s autocratic behaviour are nevertheless prepared to accept this behaviour without question.  This is because they intuit that the reason for the autocratic behaviour is related to their empowerment.  The boss is being tough with them with their highest self-interest in mind.

Autocratic behaviour in other words can be entirely legitimate but only when it is seen to be subordinate to the intention to empower.

Wendy Lambourne
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