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Empowerment: A Requirement for Success

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anthony Buller
October 11, 2017

I truly believe the vast majority of public employees want to be successful in what they do. They want their work to mean something, for their labors to yield worthwhile outcomes. Now if you’re a skeptic, a Negative Nellie, who believes otherwise and is ready with examples—by name—of those who don’t seem to want to be successful in their roles let me tell you: somehow the success for even those you can list rests within the relationship between three variables – competence, motivation and empowerment.

This is the final of four columns about a simple, but powerful, formula: Success = (Competence + Motivation)*Empowerment. The first column, which introduced the concept, is available here: Successful People Equals Mission Success, Buller, PATimes, January 13, 2017. The second, about competence can be found here: Competence: A Requirement for Success, PATimes, April 14, 2017. The third, about motivation can be found here: Motivation: A Requirement for Success, PATimes, July 14, 2017.

The first two variables—competence and motivation—were inherently about the individual. Why? Well, the individual has responsibility for those variables. Leaders influence an employee’s competence and motivation but fundamentally the burden for these rests on the individual. Now we switch it up a bit.

Empowerment, as I’ve defined it for the formula, is the total of all external influences which act upon the individual making it more or less likely that they can succeed. These external influences can include permissions, resources and other factors which do or do not clear the path for success. So this is a different variable because the individual cannot directly control their empowerment. Who does control it? Well, many things, but most often we think of the boss, or leader as I prefer.

As we learned in the first three columns, the leader assesses your competence and your motivation and elects to empower or disempower you. It’s thus probably obvious to you already: the leader is assessing things the employee can control. And thus despite me saying the leader controls empowerment, in truth, conscientious employees can substantially influence empowerment by managing the variables of competence and motivation.

For the individual who wants to be more successful:

As an individual, as an employee, how do you achieve more empowerment and thus hopefully more success? Please recognize empowerment is not directly within your control but you influence it in three main ways: (1) by managing your actual and perceived competence; (2) by managing your actual and perceived motivation, and (3) by approaching your leadership and having candid conversations about these matters. In other words: get smarter, communicate your drive and address differences between how you perceive yourself and how your leadership perceives you.

For the leader striving for organizational (and staff member individual) success:

Good leaders nurture others toward success. These good leaders want to empower people. For leaders, let me reinforce three reminders about empowerment: (1) your judgment of another’s competence and motivation might be wrong, (2) being open and candid with employees about perceptions is the best path and (3) you can influence competence and motivation, and the latter might be conditional on some empowerment.

A couple more words about empowerment – in the motivation article I pointed out near the end that often motivation is conditional. And in my experience in public service one of the conditions for employees to be motivated can be empowerment. I also wrote in a prior column that leaders shouldn’t empower the incompetent and unmotivated. And yet we lead all sorts of people. Sometimes, leaders manage an employee’s competence and motivation by empowering them first. At its most obvious, this might be a form of on-the-job training.


As I’ve explored the equation and variables I’ve presented some common themes. Here they are again…

  • First, as an individual you should assess your competence and motivation and how others perceive you (especially those who influence your empowerment).
  • Second, competence and motivation are inherently controlled by the individual, though influenced by the leader, while empowerment is controlled by the leader and influenced by perceptions of an individual’s competence and motivation.
  • Third, as a leader, you can choose to check your perceptions by having open and candid conversations with employees.

To conclude this series of four columns, I’d recommend the following: read all four columns, in order, once more. It should take you less than ten minutes. From the first column, you should know the formula. From the second, you should know that competence can be changed. The third column reminds that motivation is often conditional. And this final column tells us that empowerment is a critical variable in the equation.

Author: Anthony Buller has a decade of experience with the federal government and can be reached at [email protected]

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