Stephen Covey is author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," and "First Things First." He is a leading business consultant and founder of the Covey Leadership Center.
DiCarlo: The term "empowerment", like "quality" and "transformation" has achieved buzzword status. To some, it means pushing down authority and responsibility from the boardroom executive to the front-line employee. What is your definition of empowerment?
Covey: Well, you're right, empowerment has become a buzzword. It's kind of a bastardized term, in that, to most people, it basically means a superficial form of delegation, but it's far beyond that. It involves the 4 levels-the personal, the interpersonal, the managerial, and the organizational. At the personal level, the whole conviction of the value of other people and the creative potential of other people has not yet been touched. It takes an abundance mindset. People with scarcity mindset believe that if they give power away that means they have less power. If they share knowledge, that means they will have less knowledge or they will have less control. That's why there has to be some personal transformation before people will really want to empower other people.
Also, those being empowered have sometimes become so acclimated to the benevolent, paternalistic way of being managed so common in the past, that they find most of their satisfaction off the job.
And so it takes a process at the interpersonal level, at the managerial level, and at the organizational level to make sure that the systems and structures of an organization, which are the areas where Deming focused, are aligned to reinforce empowerment. So empowerment really involves creating conditions as the personal, interpersonal, managerial and organizational levels that will enable the fullness of people's capacities to be tapped into. And not only the individual, but also the synergy between individuals because the whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts, and the relationship between the parts becomes the biggest part of all.
DiCarlo: What would you say is the essence of empowerment?
Covey: The essence of empowerment is the awareness that the power is already in people. What we need to do is to create the conditions which unleash it.
DiCarlo: Are there any particular reasons why people become disempowered, both personally and organizationally?
Covey: Sure. They start blaming other people instead of taking responsibility. The moment you build your emotional life on the weaknesses of others, or on the weaknesses of institutions, you have just disempowered yourself. You have given your own unique, human endowment away to the source of that criticism.
So in this way, individuals literally disempower themselves. They also disempower others by structuring the organization in such a way that people really can't use their powers. They can't use their imagination. They can't use their creativity. Their ingenuity. Their motivation.
DiCarlo: Isn't it true that some people are not ready to be empowered?
Covey: Maybe they are not ready at the level at which some people think of empowerment. But they are ready at some level. The key is to discern that level at which they are ready, and create the opportunity for people to utilize their powers. Eventually, they will reach higher and higher levels of utilizing their powers and they will show enormous accountability.