Mike MacDonagh's Blog

Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

Empowerment vs. Autonomy

A colleague and friend of mine, Caroline Clewlow, recently blogged on “Giving Empowerment or Taking Autonomy” which makes some excellent points. Note sure when the second part will be published, but I’ve already read it and it’s good too (Edit: Part 2 has been posted now). One of the good points contained is

A colleague said that in the simplest terms empowerment is given whereas autonomy is taken

10 internet points if you can guess who the colleague mentioned was, and in terms of the linked vid see here

Anyway, there’s something I thought I’d add to this topic which is some discourse on the element of moral responsibility.

Because an empowered individual or team is given it’s mandate for action from a higher power (i.e. management) the moral responsibility for it’s actions is at best derived from the high power but normally resides with the higher power. An autonomous individual or team however assumes their own moral responsibility. To this is an important distinction that, on top of the points made in Caroline’s blog, makes empowerment and autonomy distinct.

An autonomous team has the right to do what it wants without asking permission, without external limitation to the scope of that right. This is in contrast to an empowered team who are empowered to “do something”  and therefore by implication anything that falls outside of that “something” from the managers interpretation is contentious.

In business change this can be both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing as means the blinkers are taken off and the change team can do whatever is necessary to achieve the business change goals (within ethical constraints) ignoring and presuppositions about how business change can and should function. That sounds pretty good so what’s the downside?

The downside is acting with autonomy is acting without permission. That means acting without management mandate, and therefore without an “organisational push motivation” for the change in question. That’s not an insurmountable problem, a collaborative supporting statement from management can achieve the same thing in a relevant culture.

The best way to achieve buy in by the relevant stakeholders to the moral responsibility of a team and it’s autonomous actions is to ensure that the team includes those stakeholders. In the business change example, this means an autonomous team must have part of the organisational management as part of it’s membership.

For a software team this means that the autonomous team can decide to take whatever action necessary to achieve it’s goals only when the customer is part of the team making those decisions.

Business change teams acting in isolation, or at arms length from organisational management and the practitioner community they serve have the same problem as agile software teams acting without a customer representative. These teams have assumed moral responsibility but no representative conscience to provide balance to the decisions made by the team. If those teams are “empowered” then they’ll have to keep checking what they’re doing with management/customers to make sure they’re still on the right track decreasing efficiency and increasing rework.  If those teams are “autonomous” then they run the risk of creating an ivory tower of zealous self-perpetuating “moral” correctness.

In both Business Change and Software Development contexts I agree that an empowered team is better than a simple instruction following team. I also agree that an autonomous team is a progression along this path from an empowered team however I believe an autonomous team is operating unethically if it does so without true customer/management/practitioner representation.

Achieving an organisational environment that enables autonomous teams means management taking an open collaborative supportive role.


This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

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One response to “Empowerment vs. Autonomy

  1. Pingback: Linguistics of business change: Holistic communication, ethics and morals « The Mac Daddy

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