“Empower” is Not a Bad Word

Brady Venables shared this post, “Don’t ’empower’ Anybody”, and in it, the author (Claire Lew) refers to her own company and her disdain for the word. Here is what she states:

I never think I should “empower” anyone — especially our employees.

Why? The definition of the word “empower” is:

to give power to (someone); to make (someone) stronger and more confident.

The key words here are “give” and “make.” Empowerment means you’re transferring power to someone else. You think someone else needs you — your permission, your influence, your talents — to do something. And I don’t ever believe that’s the case.

I have also heard pushback to this word in many education circles. Here is the thing that might not be acknowledged in this company and in education; there is a power dynamic.  Teachers have power over students, principals and superintendents over teachers, and boards over superintendents.  Pretending that this doesn’t exist is not accurate.  The opposite of “giving” is “taking”. Is it possible for a teacher to take away from a student? An employer to take from an employee?  You may not like it, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

For example, here are some of the questions that the author shares (that are all great) that lead her practice (my responses in bold):

How can I better understand what our employees really want?

What will be done when that is figured out? Will there be something “given” to make it happen?

How can I seek out dissenting viewpoints, and be open to new ideas?

You would have to “give” people the opportunity to share their voice and “make” time to share it for this to happen.  

How can I create opportunities for connection and a sense of belonging at our company?

Could you replace the word “create” with “make” in the above sentence”

The article is great and asks questions that I believe are essential for people to thrive, and actually, become “empowered” in their role in the organisation.  In fact, I am sure the author would appreciate this challenge that I am writing as one of the questions she shared was, “How can I seek out dissenting viewpoints, and be open to new ideas?”  

One element of the word “empowerment” is that it denotes “servant” leadership.  “Giving” and “making” are ways that we can honour those people that we serve.

No matter the word you use, the practice is important.  “Empowering” someone is the focus on giving those you serve opportunities that may not exist without this focus.  It is better than the opposite.

The author ends the article with this comment:

You don’t need to empower anybody. Focus on creating an environment for people to be their best selves.

“Creating” could be replaced with making, and helping someone to become their “best selves”, could also be taken as helping them become “stronger and more confident.”  People could argue over the word “empowerment” all they want, but the focus of the author and myself is the same. Do what you can to push and support people to bring out something in them that unleashes more than what they would even expect of themselves.

“Empowering” is ultimately about serving people. In my books, I am pretty comfortable with the notion and the word.




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