Friday, June 20, 2014

From Engagement to Empowerment

Bill Ferriter wrote this bit about student empowerment versus student engagement (Check out his blog). The crux of his post centered on the fact that if we want to empower students in their learning, we have to construct content in such a way that challenges students to take ownership. He went on to say that engagement is good, but the problem is that students can't be empowered to learn content that is owned by the teacher. They can only be engaged in the content.

So how does this apply to principals and teachers? 

Well, the first thing that principals need to understand is that engaging their followers is not the ultimate goal but the first step.   Leaders guide followers in committing to a mission that clearly defines why they're all there.  I mean if you can't engage followers in directing their moral compass, there's no way you're ever going to empower them to realize their true purpose. Engagement is about connecting people to what must be accomplished and that's an important first step to empowering followers. 

Engagement also requires promotion. 

Here are a few questions to see if you are engaging your staff.

  • Are you promoting the things that your school is trying to do for all kids?  
  • Are you creating a sense of excitement about the future of your school?
  • Are you celebrating the behaviors that are helping your school move forward?
  • Are you showing evidence that what you are doing is working?

When you are doing these types of things as a leader, people are interested in becoming engaged because they are attracted to what you are trying to create. Everyone wants to be a part of an organization that is focused on making progress because deep down inside everyone wants to be a part of an improvement movement. 

From engagement to empowerment. 

Once people are engaged, they are primed to be empowered. Empowerment is hard for leaders because it requires leaders to give up control. As people become actively involved, they naturally need the opportunity to take actions and make them their own.  Control must be shared with those that get it and more importantly want it, so they can help engage and then empower others who are impacted. If people are not given control of how to improve the school, you can't say they are empowered. To move from engagement to empowerment, the leader needs to focus on these questions. 

  • Are people asking for permission to do things differently than you described?
  • Are people not changing and adapting to the needs of kids because they feel like they're not allowed to?
  • Do people feel like they need to do their work in the same way as everyone on their team?

If you answered yes to any if these questions, your staff is not quite ready to be called empowered. 

The Essence of Empowerment is Control

Who's in control in an empowered culture?  It is pretty difficult to be empowered when you feel like you have no authority to select the path of your own personal progress. Empowering leaders facilitate shared control in an environment where risk-taking is rich and responsibility is shared.  In an empowered culture, people don't need permission because they have a purpose.  Once leaders realize that they must replace their chore of constant control with inspirational motivation, idealized influence, and intellectual stimulation, they will begin to move their organization from engagement to empowerment. 


  1. This is an important point, John, simply because I don't think teachers are generally empowered by most principals and superintendents.

    In my experience, there is little "shared vision building" in schools. Instead, the senior leaders of schools and districts already have a clear vision and direction in mind for the school. They aren't really interested in opening the conversation up for potential revisions to that vision. Instead, they are trying to convince teachers that their vision is the right vision. Sometimes they even try to trick the teachers into believing that the vision wasn't predetermined to begin with.

    That's a lot like the classroom teacher who isn't really interested in letting kids have a say in developing classroom rules or expectations, but instead simply try to coach the kids into accepting rules that they already had in mind.

    The result is teachers who aren't REALLY invested in the work of a school or a district because they know the work wasn't theirs to begin with -- and as a result, isn't theirs to control over the long term. Why bother investing in something that you have no real say over keeping or changing?



    1. Bill,
      Your idea about investing in people is the reason that schools fail or succeed. If you invest in people, people will invest in the organization and the results will take care of themselves. If you don't invest in the people in the building, they will not engage; therefore, the status quo remains.

      Thank you for dropping your comment. You always give me more to consider.