One word I’m always wary of is “empowerment”. The hairs on the back of my neck go up when I hear something like this.

We should make our employees feel empowered to do X.

What does this mean? Can a manager empower their team with mere words?

Johnny - you should feel empowered to overcome the obstacles 
you're currently facing.

Thank you sir for that sage advice. Thanks I’m cured

Enduring empowerment is never achieved through motivational speeches. The most a good rousing speech can do is give temporary motivation. You’ll hear the words, agree with them and then the next day comes, and the next, and so on - and then those same words are no longer driving you as they once did.

Those words don’t help when you come up against those daily obstacles that never seem to abate. When we try to pass the good words along - they don’t seem to motivate other people. Was I wrong agreeing with the words before?

You fall into your old habits, motivation is like tensing a muscle. You can do it for a while - but eventually you need to go back to your mental steady-state.

Even worse, when your work environment clashes with “empowerment” it’s easy to fall into learned helplessness. If my employer thinks I should be doing things twice as well as I am (because they said some magic words) - and I can’t do it - then I become demotivated.

Real empowerment

Empowerment is fake if it does not involve a real external change to a person’s circumstances.

When you are tasked with empowering your team, work from this little mad-lib game.

I empowered my team by ____ for them.

What are some truly empowering actions?

  • I look at the flow of work every sprint, identify the bottleneck, and exploit it.
  • I offered them paid training in the tech subject that seems to trip them up.
  • I send my team to tech conferences.
  • I listen to my team and try to provide them with what they ask for.
    • Subscriptions
    • Equipment
    • Software
    • Hardware
  • I listen to sprint retrospectives and show how I’m knocking down blockers every sprint for them.
  • If someone brings up a real blocker during the daily standup - I go to bat for them.
  • I organize work to automate error-prone processes.
  • I shield my team from outside interactions that harm flow. Requests to my people go through the kanban board and nowhere else.
  • I train my team on how to handle interruptions.
  • I make sure tickets are well-defined.
  • I changed the software development process to remove non-productive work.
  • When I tell someone to make documentation - I tell them who will actually read the documentation in the future.
  • I make sure pull request reviews are made a top priority for the team. No one should be waiting more than half a day for a pull request to have feedback on it.
  • I train my people to make pull requests that are easy to review.


Ultimately empowerment comes from without, not from within. It’s a learning process between the team lead and the engineers - a process of feedback and action. If someone is un-empowered, it is up to you to find out why.
Talk with them, do some experiments, and see what works.

Change comes from action, not words.