The Australian Defence Force delivers leadership and command through the mission command framework. However, this approach – built on mutual trust, teamwork, shared understanding, commander’s intent and accepting prudent risk (ADP 6-0, 2012) – will not function without a culture of empowerment. Words alone will not build this ethos; people need to believe and feel empowered, and leaders should be mindful to empower others as a foundation element of their leadership philosophy. This essay will examine what it means to empower another person and offer three actions that leaders can apply to create a climate that enhances self-efficacy, self-worth and capacity to perform.
What is Empowerment?
Leading researchers, including Bandura (1986), clearly define empowerment as a person’s self-efficacy and self-worth. He views efficacy as not concerned with the skills a person has but with the judgments of what a person can do with those skills. Gist and Mitchell (1992) further enhance the understanding of self-efficacy as ’a person’s estimate of their capacity to orchestrate the performance of a specific task’. The key element of this analysis is what a person estimates they can do, not the act of what they actually do. Finally, Conger and Kanungo (1988) round out the logic of empowerment by referring to it as a process where a person believes their self-efficacy (their estimate of their capacity) is improved. Empowerment is not when a leader sets a task and leaves the individual or group to their own design to formulate a solution without adequate training, suitable resources or followup supervision and feedback. Sure, a solution will probably be achieved but what was the individual’s or group’s:
- Estimate of their capacity to achieve the task (self-efficacy)?
- Level of confidence during the process (self-worth)?
- Level of training to improve the chances of success prior to the task, during the conduct and after the activity (improved self-efficacy)?
Confusing Empowerment with Participation
Giving an order that directs a subordinate to successfully execute a task is not a climate of empowerment; rather, it is an expectation of participation. In the situation above, the leader set a task that required the individual or group to act as participants and not as empowered team members to develop creative solutions. If directions are too prescriptive micro-management can be the result. If instructions are lacking detail due to inadequate or complacent leadership the team will lose trust in the leader, not understand the required standard and lack confidence in their ability to perform the task. All of these scenarios are not conducive to building a culture of empowerment.
Conger and Kanungo make a clear distinction between the social context of empowerment and participation. Empowering others is a motivational approach that relies on leaders:
- Knowing their people
- Working with strengths and weaknesses, and
- Inspiring others to be confident, willing to learn, feeling valued and being involved.
It must be remembered that leaders empower others; this is not driven from the bottom-up. Sure, soldiers will be creative and innovative but this is the consequence of a leader who empowers others.
In contrast, Conger and Kanungo identify participation as a relational construct that is reliant on procedures, policies, accountability and work outcomes. This is an environment based on power and direction and rightly has its place in the military. However, it can be restrictive and detrimental to mission command if slavishly followed by soldiers and leaders who do not feel empowered to make decisions relative to the situations they encounter.
Process of Empowerment
Conger and Kanungo offer three actions to deal with powerlessness. Identifying the symptoms and developing strategies to overcome the negatives and reinforce the positives will contribute to a culture of empowerment:
- Identify what fosters powerlessness (examples are):
- Ineffective leadership
- Out of touch leader
- Lack of vision
- Lack of trust
- Poor communications
- Poor organisational structure
- No team unity
- No recognition
- Restrictive policies, procedures and practices
- Productivity is considered above people
- Remove powerlessness conditions (examples are):
- Consult and collaborate with your people
- Face to face circulation
- Listen to the workforce and validate the information
- Design your approach to deal with the root causes/problems
- Get “buy in” from your people
- Take action and empower action
- Review the needs of your people, the organisation and the effects of action taken
- Provide people with self-efficacy information (what can leaders do):
- Understand what empowerment is
- Motivate and inspire your people
- Promote the Army Values and how they strengthen character
- Build self-worth through character, physical, emotional and social development
- Increase a person’s capacity to perform tasks by:
- Providing training
- Providing feedback
- Involving them in planning
- Employing them where their strengths are
- Developing areas of weakness
- Prepare soldiers for, and provide, regular challenges. Vary the operating environment, volume and intensity during training and operations and reward with feedback, recognition, rest and recovery.
- Increase levels of authority, accountability and responsibility as part of daily tasks and within career progression.
- Promote, practice and rely on mission command
Applying these three actions will build the capacity of soldiers and allow them to estimate a greater range of potential for themselves. This will encourage them to actively seek opportunities knowing their leaders support them. While empowerment is not a principle of mission command, it is necessary to allow agile, adaptive leaders act in the absence of orders using disciplined initiative to achieve the commander’s intent (LWD 1, 2017 and ADP 6-0 (US Army), 2012).
This essay has defined empowerment and suggested actions that leaders can take to remove powerlessness situations and create a culture of self-efficacy and self-worth. There is no denying that empowered soldiers willingly participate in assigned and implied tasks and this capacity increases when leaders allow and expect them to develop creative and resourceful solutions. A soldier is not necessarily empowered when told to achieve a task and left to tackle it. Participation without empowerment sets a culture where soldiers wait to be told about or partially consider a problem, apply routine or procedural solutions, do not fully assess the consequences and access limited resources while having mediocre influence of others. To counter this, leaders should develop an empowered climate where mission command provides freedoms of action that generate a competitive advantage.
About the author: Darren Murch has served in a variety of infantry battalions from private soldier through to regimental sergeant major (RSM). He has been an Army instructor at all ranks during his career and was the RSM at the School of Infantry. He has been posted to the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy and is currently the RSM 16th Aviation Brigade. Darren is working towards a Bachelor of Organisational Leadership.
ADP 6-0. (2012). Mission Command. United States Army Department of Defense.
Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action. In D.F. Marks (Ed.), The health psychology reader (pp. 94-106) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Conger, J. A., & Kanungo, R. N. (1988). The empowerment process: Integrating theory and practice. Academy of management review, 13(3), 471-482.
Gist, M. E., & Mitchell, T. R. (1992). Self-efficacy: A theoretical analysis of its determinants and malleability. Academy of Management review, 17(2), 183-211.
LWD 1. (2017). The Fundamentals of Land Power. Australian Army.