Empowerment the Concept of Empowerment Is Not Essay

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The concept of empowerment is not a new one, but it seems that within the last two decades it has become a buzz word. Thinking about empowerment goes back to people who were denied any type of rights whether that be to decide how they were going to live, work, eat, or make any decision regarding their own lives. It does not matter what era of history is perused there are incidents of leaders empowering people to become better.

Martin Luther was a Catholic monk who decided that the church was conducting religious business the wrong way. He wanted fame, but he also wanted the individual citizens of Germany to be able to see that they were responsible for the relationship they had with God. Of course, Luther had a rough time of it. He was arrested, excommunicated, treated as an outlaw, but he was the guiding spirit behind the beginning of the reformation movement. His work in empowerment was for a group of people who had been cruelly ruled by a tyrannical church for over a thousand years. Empowerment in history usually involved a reformer who was willing to sacrifice him or herself to the end of giving common people more of their individual rights.

Another instance of empowerment were the voyages of a man who was seeking a prize. In his book "Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time," Dava Sobel (1996) outlines the pursuit of a reliable method to determine lines of longitude. His idea was not one of empowerment per se, but that is how the expedition ended. Sailors before this time knew what the lines of latitude were, but they could not determine lines of longitude, and this meant that they were not able to determine their East-West bearing. This meant that "many thousands of sailors were lost" before John Harrison discovered a proper means for doing this. The empowerment part comes in the sailors ability. They were able to solve the problem of position which had plagued them prior to Harrison's design for a reliable chronometer. This example may seem a stretch, but actually it is not. People are empowered by self-actualization (Merriam-Webster, 2011) as were the sailors who received the new chronometers. The different definitions will show how the concept of empowerment can be used in many different ways.


Empowerment is not a new concept, but it has generally been used most in the business world in its most recent incarnations. To that end, the definition from the "Business Directory" (2011) says that empowerment is;

"Management practice of sharing information, rewards, and power with employees so that they can take initiative and make decisions to solve problems and improve service and performance. It is based concept of giving employees the skills, resources, authority, opportunity, motivation, as well holding them responsible and accountable for outcomes of their actions."

The concept is that management has to give of its own accepted authority to subordinates. People do not necessarily empower themselves as much as they are given a portion of the power which management already enjoys. This definition is more about delegation than being personally empowered.

The official American word source, the "Merriam-Webster Dictionary" (2011), terms it thus, "to give official authority or legal power to or to promote the self-actualization or influence of." Empowerment then, by definition, cannot be taken. It is the giving of responsibility to another individual who is then held accountable for how they use that responsibility. Therefore, empowerment can be seen as a possible negative by these definitions. A boss may be setting the employee up to fail, and just "gives them enough rope to hang themselves" through the empowerment.

Chamberlin (1997) decided to determine a definition for empowerment which could be universally used for the mental health clients that her agency served. Since the people (patients/clients/consumers) she served had very little real power, Chamberlin wanted to understand, both from the clients and from the staff, what empowerment looked like. They say the concept as having the following dimensions;

"Having decision-making power; having access to information and resources; having a range of options from which to make choices; assertiveness; a feeling that the individual can make a difference; learning to think critically; learning the conditioning; seeing things differently; learning about and expressing anger; feeling part of a group; understanding that people have rights; effecting change in one's life and one's community; learning skills that the individual defines as important; changing others' perceptions of one's competency and capacity to act; coming out of the closet; growth and change that is never ending and self-initiated; and, increasing one's positive self-image and overcoming stigma" (Chamberlin, 1997).

This definition seems to be all-inclusive. It can be used for both the patient and the nurse. Sometimes patients feel that they have no power to act outside of what the medical professionals tell them, but, in reality, they have all of the power to act or not to. The nurse has less power because he or she does come under the authority of the hospital and the orders that are given, but they do have the power of "assertiveness" which they should exercise in deference to the patient's wishes.

Literature Review

There has been much written about the concept of empowerment besides just simple, or complex, definitions of the concept. A literature review of how empowerment is treated in the literature is a necessary addition to any discussion of the construct.

Many times the concept has been used in accordance with some population (such as women, patients, etc.) who had been denied certain types of power in the past, or empowerment can be a personal journey through which a person goes (Sadan, 2004). Paula San Pedro (2006) has concluded from her research, and that of the FRIDE group, that empowerment "can be regarded from a rhetorical and a theoretical perspective as an efficient tool for conflict prevention and peace building in the broad sense." These definitions correlate to the ones mentioned above, but give an even broader perspective of empowerment.

Whether it is a personal choice or something that is given from someone who has authority, empowerment has many facets. Giving employees the means to improve themselves, improves the business processes (Okes & Westcott, 2001). This seems to be the central focus of empowerment from the research (Okes & Westcott, 2001; Gebert, et al., 2006; Dickson & Lorenz, 2009). Organizations want to have employees that take ownership of their individual processes (Gebert, et al., 2006), and they want those employees to feel that enough debt to the company that they remain there (Dickson & Lorenz, 2009).

One researcher bemoaned a practice that some managers and companies are apparently involved in. The employee is supposedly empowered to do a job, but the manager really is just trying to make the employee feel more important while not giving them any actual extra authority. This false empowerment may never register with the employee. The employer may falsely make their employees feel that they have some power within the organization, to possibly bolster flagging morale or increasing attrition, but they take a risk in this action (Haun, 2010). This false sense of empowerment will only make the employees less responsive in the long run. Also, the manager that uses this tactic will not truly be able to give the reins to an employee when the need arises because the manager will never have discovered whether the employee can truly make independent decisions (Haun, 2010).

This brings up another issue that has gotten much traction in the literature; how does one measure empowerment? San Pedro (2006) says "the main obstacles are the variety of definitions of the term and the ambiguity surrounding it; its intangible nature; the need to measure it in a given context; the difficulties of process evaluation and the lack of data over an extended period of time." All of these factors make it difficult to quantify the actual efficacy of an empowering gesture. Kaminski (2003) suggests that the people can demonstrate the empowerment that they are given through the future actions that they take, and the stories they develop. Depending on the method and goal of the empowering gesture, the outcome may not be easily recognizable.


From the definitions of the concept it attributes can be found, but there is also a thread throughout the literature which shows how empowerment is viewed and what it should include. From these source the attributes of empowerment are: "inner awareness, enabled potential and outcome directed activities" (Cochran, 2008); assertiveness, understanding that others have rights (Chamberlin, 1997); and the ability to act in order to attain goals (Sadan, 2004)." There are more possibilit8ies depending on the way one defines empowerment, but these few are the basis for any others that can be determined. Walker & Avant (2005) call attributes "a list of characteristics that appear over and over again," and these are seen throughout the literature no matter what…[continue]

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