Empowerment in the US Navy!

USS Santa Fe

You can’t implement a bottom-up concept in a top-down way.

Empowerment is just some wishy-washy claptrap that managers use to carry on exerting their own power, isn’t it?

Well, yes, it is – if folks don’t really understand empowerment. But folks who get empowerment know and feel a different version.

I’ve most often read about this different version in public services like health and social care. So reading this take on empowerment in, erm, the US Navy was exhilarating!

There’s lot in there to think and reflect on, but here are a couple of choice snippets:

Saying we need an empowerment program is like saying we need a swimming program. The implication is that swimming isn’t a natural occurring behavior for our people. So, what we are saying when we say we need an empowerment program is that the fundamental way we run our organization is dis-empowering.


If it takes the boss to empower them, the boss can unempower them, and that’s not very powerful.

If it can work in the US Navy, e.g.

The highest performing teams in the military perform in highly decentralized, and empowered ways.

… then I’m pretty sure it can work in health and social care (and public service management more generally).


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

3 thoughts on “Empowerment in the US Navy!”

  1. Reading this reminded me of one of my favourite papers, it’s by Steve Dowson and it’s called ‘Empowerment Within Services: A Comfortable Delusion’. He argues that the volume of discussion about ’empowerment’ is a distraction, which gives the impression of change without anything actually having to change. As Dowson points out, the very grammar of ’empowerment’ is passive: it ‘ indicates that the powerful will exercise their power even in the very act of empowerment’, and it is the professionals themselves who have ‘defined the goals, means and language of empowerment’. In one sentence that has stuck with me, he argues ‘those who are empowered may well find that the power has not been given but merely loaned, as in the gift of the parent who allows a teenager to exercise choice — but only if the parent judges that the choices are sensible.’ I’m currently writing a research proposal about the MCA and ‘the problem of empowerment’ – it strikes me that power is always only ever on loan under the MCA…

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