We’ve got to take out the boss element.
—Jack Welch, former CEO, General Electric
In a speech that I originally gave in New York in August 1979, I used a word that I had never before heard used within the context of employee relations. Yet over the past three decades, the use of that same word in the business lexicon has reached virus-like proportions. In the process, the term has taken on a life (and many new definitions) of its own. Sadly, as is often the case with any product, image, or even an humble word that somehow makes the journey from obscurity to ubiquity, we see entire books, seminars, podcasts, lectures, T-shirts, and ball caps devoted to it. There’s nothing wrong with that—except perhaps for the fact that with every mindless repetition, its meaning gets hopelessly muddled, if not lost altogether. That word is empowered.
The reason for discussing empowerment now is even more crucial than it was back then. While everyone rushes around doing whatever they do to “empower” their people, many are proceeding entirely in the wrong direction. And if you think about it, you might realize that your people may not really need empowering at all. After all, they know how to find their way to work, what their jobs are, and probably the best ways of doing them.
Management professor Henry Mintzberg offers perhaps the best analogy when he tells us to consider a truly advanced social system: the beehive. Queen bees don’t empower worker ...