Culture – Involvement: Empowerment vs Delegation

by Ron Potter

Empowerment vs. Delegation

Last week my blog post spoke of Empowerment in great cultures.  I need to take a short side trip here to talk about the differences between the words empowerment and delegation.  I’m not going to suggest that the words need to be used differently than they are today, that would be too large of a task.  But I believe it’s crucial that we understand the difference and also understand why one is required before you can accomplish the other.

These two words have become confused and misused in today’s language.  We currently view empowerment as a good thing and delegation as a bad thing.  I believe you need to empower before you delegate, and delegation is the higher form of the two words.

Let’s go back to the original definition of the two words and understand what they mean.


The dictionary says “To promote the self-actualization or influence of – make more confident – give someone a greater sense of confidence or self-esteem (Italics are mine)

Empowerment helps a person increase confidence, self-actualization, and self-esteem.  Empower is facilitated by allowing you to influence me on decisions and directions.  In other words, if I’ve Empowered you to run a portion of an organization, I will allow you to:

  • make all of your plans
  • run them by me to influence decisions to be made.

However, it’s still clear that the decisions are mine.

Advantages of Empowerment

There are a few advantages of using empowerment over a period of time:

  1. The individual grows and gets better as you question and learn the reasons for their planning and decision making
  2. You, the one granting empowerment, begin to learn how this particular person thinks and approaches issues.  It may be very different than you, but that doesn’t make it wrong.
  3. You may learn something along the way (see comments below about hiring experts)
  4. You gain a comfort level that the person is capable of tackling projects
Hiring the Expert

We often hire a person who is an expert in a particular area.  But, you must be very careful about how you grow and nurture that person.  If you start asking questions about how or why they reach a certain decision, their reaction might be:

  • Why am I being questioned?  I’m the expert.
  • Does this person trust me?
  • I can’t stand the “micromanagement” much more.  I may have made a mistake in taking this job.

When you hire an expert or someone with considerably more experience in an area than you possess, make sure you explain the reason for empowerment and when you expect to move up to Delegation.

Empowerment needs to take place in this situation for a couple of reasons:

  1. You need to learn and grow in this area.  This is the reason you hired an experienced expert.
  2. You need to know the key indicators of the job or project.  Is it going well?  Are we in trouble?  How will I know as soon as possible?  When do I need to explain a bigger picture or other influences where this person may not have an awareness?

If you let your “expert” know all of this ahead of time, they’ll be better equipped and more willing to answer your questions.


The dictionary says, “Give a responsibility or task to somebody else – Assign responsibility or authority – Commit or entrust another.”

Delegation carries a much higher level of responsibility than empowerment.

In U.S. Embassies, the Ambassador is our official representative.  The Ambassador is our delegate.

I believe delegation is the higher state of the empowerment-delegation pair.  Delegation means you have been entrusted with a piece of the business to run as you see fit.  However, like a US Ambassador, regular check-ins are expected.  That is why we empower first so that key indicators can be understood and approved before the assignment is delegated.

Do they know the difference?

I’ve often asked leaders if they can tell me which direct reports are empowered and which they’ve delegated.  After understanding the definitions, they will tell me who they’ve delegated and who is still empowered.

My next question is, “Do your direct reports know if they’re empowered or delegated?”  The answer is usually no.  This causes confusion.  Each person is wondering why they are treated differently from another person.  One of the positive things I’ve seen happen when an explanation is made, the empowered quickly ask, “What do I need to do to have that delegated to me?”  This is the perfect question.

Misunderstood and timing

Because the original meaning of these words has been lost, I’ve seen managers and leaders assume that if they are going to empower someone, they should look the other way and let them do their thing.  That’s an abdication of leadership.  Leadership is still required in both empowerment and delegation.  Don’t sacrifice your role at the alter of empowerment.

The other issue is timing.  If you like having your direct reports continually in an empowered state, that is an indication that you’re letting your ego get in the way.  Delegation can be scary but is required for a healthy organization.  On the other hand, if you’re pretty good at getting people delegated (they’ll think of you as one of the best bosses they’ll ever have) and you still have someone in an empowered state even after a year of attempting delegation, you probably need to help that employee move elsewhere.  If they’re not willing or capable of accepting delegation, they may not be the right person for your organization.

Be Aware

Again, I’m not trying to change how language is used, but I do believe it’s important that you understand the differences to be effective.

The Denison Culture Survey (and almost everyone else) is using the word empowering.  The concept is correct.  Having people engaged, empowered, and taking responsibility for their work will have a positive impact on your organization.  Make it happen.

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