At the outset we should acknowledge that empowerment is not an instantaneous event. We cannot empower someone by simply deciding that they are empowered, instead a deliberate framework for empowerment must be followed.
Empowerment is a process for enabling contribution; for cultivating ‘givers’. People can’t make a contribution if they don’t have the ‘means’ to do so; literally, they are not allowed to give. In an organisation, empowerment means providing people with an enabling environment in which to perform by giving them the requisite tools, resources, time, authority, targets/goals, standards, and feedback.
Equally for contribution to happen, people must have the ‘ability’ to give. They need to know from their manager both ‘how’ to do what is required of them and ‘why’ they should do it.
Generally, managers believe that having addressed the two variables of ‘means’ and ‘ability’ to contribute, their empowerment job is done. To use the analogy of empowering a man to fish, the process entails providing him with the tools and bringing in an expert to teach him to fish. Suitably equipped and able, the man is now fully empowered to feed himself and his family by fishing. Or is he? No, he is not. What is missing is the third critical variable in the process – the issue of ‘accountability’. At some point the fisherman must be told: ‘If you don’t catch the fish, very sorry but starve’.
What engages people’s will to contribute is accountability. Through the centre of accountability runs a standard. A person’s contribution can either be above standard or below standard. When a person’s contribution is above standard, either the person is going the extra mile, in which case it is appropriate to reward the person, or the person is careful to meet the standard and should be recognised. Similarly if the person has the means and ability but is below standard, it is for two kinds of reasons: either the person is careless and should be censured or she is malevolent, which requires that she be disciplined.
To empower someone means to address all these three aspects of the empowerment process. Unless due consideration is given to all three – in the order of means, ability and then accountability – empowerment has not happened.