I believe I learned this from Peter Scholtes, though maybe I am remembering it wrong or explaining it wrong (so give him the credit and if I mess it up it is my fault). I believe there is a problem with using the term empowered. Using the term implies that it one person empowers another person. This is not the correct view. Instead we each play a role within a system. Yes there are constraints on your actions based on the role you are playing. Does a security guard empower the CEO to enter the building?
Some systems are setup with a great deal of micro managing. Then consultants look around and say you need to empower your employees to think. Which often results in mangers saying “you all are empowered” go forth and do good work. Saying that is meaningless. What matters is changing the system. The system needs to respect people. That is not increased by people using the word empowered. In fact it is decreased, I believe, due to the implied notion that one person “empowers” the other (what can be granted can be withdrawn).
I believe organizations should be designed so that decisions are made at the appropriate level. Systems should be designed to produce good results by allowing people to contribute. People should be trusted to do their job. They should not be micro-managed. They should work from standard work instructions. They should practice kaizen… When discussing empowerment this topics come up, but the wrong term reinforces the wrong view of the situation.
It is similar to the problem with “motivation.” What managers need to do is eliminate de-motivation – not to motivate. Manager’s don’t need to “empower” employees they need to fix the system to treat employees with respect and allow them to do their jobs well.