Empowerment. It’s a concept that’s getting a lot of buzz lately, as part of a recent increase in attention on organizational and workforce health. In fact, empowerment has been linked to some major organizational benefits: high employee empowerment is a predictor of high employee engagement (Jose & Mampilly 2014; Stander & Rothman 2010), which we know is a good predictor of productivity. If empowerment predicts engagement, it’s possible that empowerment is the key leading indicator organizations have been looking for. But how exactly are you supposed to find out if your employees are empowered? An empowered workforce is gold for businesses, but figuring out how to measure it can be a difficult process – like making gold from lead. It’s basically alchemy.
Empowerment can be difficult to define, let alone measure: the word empowerment can be used in many different contexts. Even in the generally accepted context of organizational psychology, empowerment refers to the way(s) in which someone thinks about, understands, and views their role in the workplace – and that’s pretty all-encompassing.
So, let’s break this down, with the understanding that measuring empowerment is like performing alchemy. In alchemy there are four basic elements: air, earth, fire, and water. Similarly, empowerment can be divided into four elements too: meaning, competence, self-determination, and impact (Spreitzer 1995).
That is, empowerment is comprised of how a person feels about their work role in terms of:
whether their role has meaning
whether they feel competent in their role
whether they feel that their role allows them some self-determination
whether they feel they are making an impact
This sounds like a wonderful description of what it means to be empowered, but we are left with the puzzle of breaking down those four elements into something that’s actually actionable. How do we get the true elemental metals from these broad concepts?
There is a myriad of possible approaches, but let’s zero in on two particularly relevant psychological concepts: locus of control and self-compassion.
Locus of control is the idea that we all feel a certain degree of control over our lives (Thomas & Velthouse 1990). People with a strong external locus of control feel that events happen to them rather than because of them, and that no matter how they act or what they say, they will have no impact on their current or future circumstances. Conversely, those with a strong internal locus of control feel that they play an agentive role in their own circumstances – that they have a strong influence on what happens in their lives, and that their actions have tangible and meaningful effects on the world.
These loci, like most psychological dimensions, exist on a scale; we all possess an external and internal locus of control to some extent. Many things can influence the relative strengths of a person’s loci of control, including lifestyle and socioeconomic factors that affect the amount of control a person actually has on their life and surroundings. This also means that the strength of each locus can be variable over time as these and other factors change.
It is not surprising that locus of control has previously been linked to empowerment (Spreitzer 1995). Those with a strong internal locus of control are likely to feel that their actions have an effect on the world around them – and generally speaking, they’re right. They feel that they’re able to make an impact in their current role, and that their role allows them some self-determination to choose what their day-to-day existence is like. That is, we can use locus of control, a concept easily measured by psychologists, as a proxy for elements 3 and 4 of empowerment – impact and self-determination.
Now let’s consider self-compassion.
Often it is self-esteem rather than self-compassion that is linked to empowerment. But self-esteem can be problematic; too much focus on liking yourself and comparing yourself to others can mean that measures of high self-esteem are confounded with high levels of narcissism (Neff 2003; Damon 1995; Finn 1990; Seligman et al. 1995). Narcissists, however, do not necessarily have high levels of empowerment – in fact, there is evidence that they often feel a sense of insecurity and lack of control (Czarna et al. 2014; Campbell & Miller 2011; Miller et al. 2013).
Self-compassion, on the other hand, is what we might actually expect self-esteem to be; it is defined as “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s own experience is part of the common human experience” (Neff 2003). Self-compassion is correlated with compassion for others, and as such it is not correlated with being self-absorbed or inconsiderate of others. It is also not related to self-pity; self-pitying individuals often feel very disconnected from others (Goldstein & Kornfield 1987), while self-compassionate individuals feel a sense of connection to others through a more widespread tendency toward compassion (Neff 2003). Self-esteem is often fragile in the face of criticism – self-compassion is not (Neff et al. 2007; Neff 2003).
These findings make self-compassion a very useful tool for the workplace; employees can receive constructive feedback while still maintaining their self-compassion. Likewise, self-compassion allows an employee to overcome their failures and not be defined by them. Since self-compassion also helps regulate emotions, it provides people with a sense of stability and agency over their feelings. Sound familiar?
Self-compassion allows people to feel competent even when receiving critical feedback, and to feel like their life and work has meaning via a sense of connectedness to their environment. It allows for a sense of control over feelings and circumstances, giving us insight into people’s sense of self-determination as well. The concept of self-compassion has also been well-documented and is easily measured by psychologists, so we can use it as a well-founded proxy for elements 1-3 of empowerment.
All these findings give us a great way to make sense of empowerment: by combining measures of self-compassion and locus of control, we have the means to measure the extent to which our employees feel that their role has meaning, that they are competent, that they possess self-determination, and that they are making an impact.
And that’s one way to turn lead into gold.