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Management Myths: The Myth of Hands-Off “Empowerment” – Part 3 of 3

By Bruce Tulgan

This is Part 3 of a 3 part series. You can view Part 1 HERE, and Part 2 HERE.

For too long now, the pendulum of management thinking, books, and training has swung so far in exactly the wrong direction, toward hands-off management.

The recent widespread use of the term “engagement” is just another way of invoking the vastly misunderstood concept of “empowerment.” Empowerment has been widely misunderstood ever since Douglas McGregor gave us Theory X and Theory Y: Theory X says that workers are best motivated by external sources such as fear, coercion, and tangible rewards. Theory Y says that workers are best motivated by sources internal to themselves such as desire, belief, and the quest for self-actualization. Nearly all the relevant research indicates that people are actually motivated by both internal and external factors. Nonetheless, Theory Y has been the main ingredient in the “empowerment” literature for several decades, to the nearly total exclusion of Theory X. The result is that “false empowerment” has become the prevailing approach in management thinking, books, and training. In the “false empowerment:” approach, managers should not keep close track of employees and they definitely should not zero in on employee failures. Employees should be made to feel they “own” their work and should be set free to make their own decisions. Managers are merely facilitators, there to align the natural talents and desires of employees with fitting roles in the workplace. Managers should not tell people how to do their jobs, but rather let employees come up with their own methods. The idea is, make employees feel good inside and results will take care of themselves.

This false empowerment approach dovetails with broader social, cultural, and workplace trends away from hierarchy. We “question authority” at work, in the family, and everywhere else. The wishful thinking that “nobody needs to be in charge” is underwritten by this larger discourse.

But face it. Somebody is in charge and employees will “be held accountable.” Employees do not have the “power” to do things their own way in the workplace. They are not free to ignore tasks they don’t like. They are not free to do as they please. Rather, employees are free only to make their own decisions within defined guidelines and parameters that are determined by others according to the strict logic of the enterprise at hand. Responsibility without sufficient direction and support is not empowerment, it is downright negligent.

The fact that false empowerment just doesn’t work is evidenced by the fact that nearly every organization I know of has tried one strategy after another either to force managers to lead with a stronger hand or to somehow end-run the management part of leadership.

If you are hands-off and treat everybody the same, you are treating your employees like low performers. You will undermanage most of them into a slow downward spiral. And you will attract more low performers who want to “work for you.” If you are strong and highly engaged, you are treating your employees like high performers. You will manage most of them into a steady upward spiral. And high performers will beat down your door for the chance to work for you.

It comes down to this: What kind of employees do you want looking for you? What kind of boss are you going to be?

Be the boss who says: “Great news, I’m the boss! I consider that a sacred responsibility. I’m going to make sure that everything goes well around here. I’m going to help you get a bunch of work done very well, very fast, all day long. I’m going to set you up for success every step of the way. I’m going to spell out expectations for you every step of the way. I’m going to help you plan, to clarify goals, guidelines, and specifications. I’m going to help you monitor and measure and document your success every step of the way. I’m going to help you solve problems as soon as they occur, so they don’t fester and grow into bigger problems. Count on me. When you need something, I’m going to help you find it. When you want something, I’m going to help you earn it.”

It’s okay to be the boss. Yes, it’s hard. Step up to the challenge, and be a great leader!


About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (Revised & Updated, 2014). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website