The Psychology Behind Empowerment

The Psychology Behind Empowerment


Psychological Empowerment refers to a subjective process involving cognition and attitudes that help individuals feel competent, effective and authorized to carry out tasks. The term empowerment was coined by Kanter in 1977, wherein he referred to it as the cornerstone for improving quality and service in organizations. Although Kanter looked at empowerment through the lens of organizational psychology, the first theories of empowerment looked at this term through the lens of community psychology.

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First theories of Empowerment

Rappaport (1981) proposed that it should be the primary focus of community psychology. According to him, it is helping those with unequal power to understand their situation and gain more power. This includes the consideration of people’s rights, needs and choices while acknowledging the powerlessness experienced by groups. Conger and Kanungo (1988) defined empowerment as a relational construct in the practice of organizational psychology, particularly in management and leadership.

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They describe empowerment as the process using which a leader shares their power with their subordinates while being in a dynamic relationship with them. Thomas and Venthouse (1990) built on the previous definition and further developed and refined the motivation-centered theory of psychological empowerment. This model views it as a factor of motivation associated with intrinsic motivation and cognitive components that help generate this type of motivation. These cognitive components include competence, impact, meaning and choice, or self-determination.

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Zimmerman (2000) posited empowerment as a multilevel construct analyzed at three levels: individual, organizational and community. At each level of analysis, empowerment is seen as a process and an outcome. According to this theory, It is at the individual level of analysis. However, it could take different forms, depending on the people involved and the situational contexts. Zimmerman (2000) broke down psychological empowerment into three components: intrapersonal, interactional and behavioural.

  • The behavioural component refers to the actions done after being empowered or those done to empower.
  • The interactional component denotes the individual’s views and relations with their environment and other people.
  • The intrapersonal component denotes the individual’s self-perceptions about self-efficacy and competence and the motivation to control outcomes, people or the situation.

It should be noted that the intrapersonal component in Zimmerman’s theory overlaps with the four dimensions of cognitive components proposed by Thomas and Venthouse (1990). If we were to combine the definition from all the theories above, we could say that psychological empowerment is a subjective, cognitive and motivational process where the individual perceives themselves as having the skills and competence for carrying out and completing tasks.

Building on this theory, Spreitzer (1995) developed a model that included both the social-structural antecedents (including psychosocial and organizational factors, and individual worker characteristics) and also its consequences that could be related to emotions, attitudes, and/or actions. In this model, age, cultural differences, and profession were observed to be the moderating variables.

Types of empowerment

To fully comprehend and address the powerlessness of individuals and groups, efforts to empower must be made on multiple levels. Here is an account of empowerment at various levels:

1. Individual empowerment: it gives individuals a sense of control and enhances their self-efficacy. It gives them the idea that their life is changing for the better and they have the power to facilitate the same.

2. Organizational empowerment: At the organizational level, it happens in two ways:

  • Empowering those within the organization
  • Effectively and fairly addressing issues at the organizational level internally and externally

In other words, it is empowering the individuals and the groups within the organization. Maton (2008) identified a set of positive core organizational characteristics including a group-based belief system, positive core activities, opportunity role structure, a supportive relational environment, leadership, and setting maintenance and change.

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3. Community empowerment: Community empowerment indicates that the specific community has the resources and talent to control and manage its affairs, influence the relevant groups inside and outside the community, and develop empowered leaders and community organizations. This type of empowerment might particularly be useful for communities that have experienced trauma in the form of natural disasters or wars.

4. Societal empowerment: Societal empowerment encompasses processes and structures influencing the empowerment of individuals, organizations and communities involved in a specific society. In such cases, equity and equality in terms of the distribution of resources are important goals.

Strategies to empower yourself

For the scope of this article, here are some strategies that would help you empower yourself:

  • Enhance your self-efficacy.
  • Identify a power-oriented goal or an issue.
  • Increase your knowledge about the selected issue.
  • Develop skills and competencies to deal with the problem at hand.
  • Complain on issues that you think are crucial to you, your family and friends, or your society and/or community.
  • Find meaning in your social influence. This is usually experienced through the outcomes of the action (in this case, your complaints)

In conclusion, empowerment is not a linear drive towards feeling a strong sense of self-efficacy but is a dynamic process wherein individuals learn new skills, acquire knowledge, take action through raising complaints, assess their social impact and then refine their efforts to enhance the outcomes of their social influence.

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