The Basic Idea

The term “empowerment” is increasingly used in contemporary communications, whether it refers to women uplifting other women in technology,1 supporting the COVID-19 vaccine industry,2 or taking action on your career goals.3 If empowerment applies to so many domains, does it mean the same thing in every context? At its core, empowerment is a construct that links individual strengths, help from community systems, and proactive behaviors to social policy and change.4

Empowerment refers to a value orientation of autonomy and self-determination, as well as a theoretical model for understanding the process and consequences of efforts to exert control over decisions that affect oneself, organizational functioning, or the quality of community life.5 Empowerment is commonly linked to strength and confidence, as autonomy allows people to take control of their choices and claim their rights.6 To this end, both self-empowerment and empowering others are important. There are different types and levels of empowerment, defined according to the contexts to which they apply.

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.

– Maya Angelou, American poet and civil rights activist on self-empowerment

Theory, meet practice

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Key Terms

Empowerment: Involves both individual determination over one’s own life and democratic participation in the life of one’s community.

Levels of empowerment

Personal level: Empowerment is the experience of gaining increasing control and influence in daily life and community participation.

Small group level: Empowerment involves the shared experience, analysis, and influence of groups on their own efforts.

Community level: Empowerment revolves around the utilization of resources and strategies to enhance community control.


The concept of empowerment can be traced back to Marxist sociology, which has been concerned with the relationship between society and economics since the 20th century.7 Specifically, Marxist sociologists focused on historical materialism, modes of production, and the way that police forces were used to control Indigenous folks and low-income individuals - all in the name of capitalism.8

However, the term “empowerment” was first used for research purposes by American psychologist Julian Rappaport, in his 1981 article In praise of paradox: A social policy of empowerment over prevention.9 Rappaport emphasized that focusing on empowerment would lead people to look for solutions to social and living problems in a variety of local settings, rather than in centralized solutions of a single “helping” structure, where help is considered a scarce commodity. Rappaport suggested that in order to ensure empowerment, there is a paradoxical issue that we need to focus on: a conflict between “rights” models and “needs” models when considering people in trouble.

Following his 1981 article, Rappaport published another article in 1987 entitled Terms of empowerment/exemplars of prevention: Toward a theory for community psychology.6 In this piece, Rappaport made a case for empowerment as the subject of an ecological theory for community psychology, a field of psychology that studies individuals’ contexts within, and relationships to, their close communities and broader society.10 By understanding the quality of life of individuals within different social contexts, community psychologists hope to enhance quality of life.

Rappaport believed that empowerment would be a strong theoretical base for community psychology as it captured the the field’s world view and phenomena of interest: applications and interventions to stimulate, facilitate, or create encouraging social policies.9 Rappaport pointed out that the definitions of empowerment suggest that research must focus on how it is actually experienced and the mediating structures.

 By definition, empowerment literally means to bring power: adding “em” before a word typically means “to put in or into, bring to a certain state.”11 Related to Rappaport’s idea of studying people’s experiences with empowerment under community psychology, Canadian researchers John Lord and Peggy Hutchison published an article in 1993 entitled The process of empowerment: Implications for theory and practice.12 In this article, the researchers highlighted how - in order to understand empowerment - there must first be an understanding of the basic concepts of power and powerlessness. Empowerment as a whole focuses on ensuring basic opportunities and encouraging skill development, but this is especially important for marginalized communities to increase equitable access to opportunities and resources.

Lord and Hutchison also highlighted the difference between real and surplus powerlessness.12 Real powerlessness results from economic inequities and oppressive control exercised by people and systems. On the other hand, surplus powerlessness is an internalized belief that change cannot occur, resulting in apathy and an unwillingness to struggle for more autonomy. Discussions of empowerment tend to focus on personal control, in which surplus powerlessness can be influenced by one’s mindsets: when struggling against real powerlessness, it is important to first overcome surplus powerlessness. Of course, prior experiences can make this a difficult process.

More recently in 2000, adolescent health and empowerment researcher Marc Zimmerman made a distinction between empowerment as a value orientation and empowerment theory.5 Zimmerman held that value orientations of empowerment suggest goals, aims, and strategies that people can develop to implement change. On the other hand, empowerment theory provides principles and a framework for organizing our knowledge around empowerment and social change.


Empowerment theory as it applies to social work emphasizes social workers’ roles in increasing their clients’ capacities for self-help. Rather than viewing themselves as passive and helpless, empowerment theory can shift mindsets to be self-empowered and fighting oppression. In this “fight,” social workers take on the roles of facilitators of the process, rather than “rescuers.” 

Within social work, there is a focus on direct power blocks, the structures that stop people from achieving their goals (i.e. inequitable access to education) and indirect power blocks, referring to internalized oppression.13 Social workers and community psychologists can work together to deliver interventions addressing indirect power blocks, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. Empowerment theory also helps marginalized communities develop awareness on several barrier levels: self-efficacy, guiding individuals to believe they can change their circumstances; critical consciousness, bringing individuals together to learn from another and to avoid feeling alone; and tool development, through personal intervention and collective advocacy.

Empowerment is also commonly referenced in terms of gender empowerment, through an approach partly guided by feminism and human rights. The United Nations has pointed to empowerment and gender participation as a necessary step for countries to overcome the obstacles associated with poverty and development, setting its fifth sustainable development goal to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” 14

Closely related to gender empowerment is legal empowerment, referring to when marginalized communities use legal mobilisation - a tool used by advocacy groups to negotiate with other concerned agencies and stakeholders - to improve their social, political, or economic situations.15 This empowerment approach focuses on understanding how the law can be used to overcome barriers for marginalized communities.

Lastly, employee empowerment is used in workplaces, referred to as one of the most important management concepts.16 Generally, this form of empowerment refers to distributing control, such as giving workers greater access to resources and lower-level decisions. With greater employee participation comes greater abilities to independently and responsibly handle individual tasks. Employee empowerment also increases employee motivation and satisfaction, which benefits stakeholders at all levels of the organization.17 In order for managers to empower their employees, there are three key factors that must be met:

  1. Share information with everyone;
  2. Create autonomy through boundaries; and,
  3. Replace the normative hierarchy with self-directed work teams.


The criticisms of empowerment theory focus on its lack of theoretical basis and the inherent power imbalances in empowerment approaches. For example, programs must be grounded in a clear conceptualization of empowerment, rather than assuming that programs themselves are empowering.18 Yet, there does not seem to be a universal definition for empowerment - even across different fields - making it difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of so-called empowerment approaches.

Of course, in order for one practitioner to use an empowerment approach with another, both parties must have an understanding of who is doing the empowering.19 Then comes the question of who determines what is empowering. In social work, for example, is it the social worker, or the client, or both? There is an inherent power imbalance such that the social worker decides what the client needs to feel empowered, a dynamic that practitioners must be critical of.

Additionally, there is the question of when empowerment approaches are appropriate.18 In certain communities that value interdependence, marginalized members who express power may experience negative consequences (i.e. women talking back to their husbands in a culture that values “traditional” gender norms). While we may feel that this is unjust, we must recognize that many researchers and consumers of research are WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.20 When evaluating empowerment theory, practitioners must remember that not all clients may be WEIRD, and that such approaches are not universally beneficial.

Case Study

Employee empowerment and team performance

Employee empowerment has been a topic of interest ever since American social worker and management consultant Mary Parker Follett distinguished between “power-with” and “power-over”, suggesting that integrating desires would increase power-with and power-over.21 The existing literature on this topic is varied: some researchers have focused on psychological aspect of employee empowerment (i.e. meaningfulness, choice, impact, and competence) while others have suggested that there are seven dimensions of employee empowerment (i.e. power, decision making, initiative and creativity, responsibility, autonomy, information, and knowledge and skills).

Considering the model of seven dimensions of employee empowerment, Yang and Choi felt that there was noticeable overlap between dimensions.21 For example, decision making overlaps with autonomy, which also overlaps with power. Based on these observations, the researchers identified four dimensions of empowerment: autonomy, creativity, information, and responsibility. They wanted to examine the effect of employee empowerment on team performance, specifically in the context of municipal work teams.

Surveying 176 American municipal government employees, the researchers found that all four dimensions - autonomy, creativity, information, and responsibility - had positive and significant effects on team performance.21 Increased autonomy was associated with more intrinsic motivation, increased information was associated with more accurate decisions, and increased creativity was associated with more motivation to work.

The findings suggest that employee empowerment programs should consider different dimensions of empowerment, allowing managers to design more successful programs and experience improvements in the workplace.21 The findings also suggest that dimensions of empowerment may vary across domains and populations. What is necessary for one group may not apply to all, which is why it is important that research addresses many different marginalized communities to better understand and apply empowerment approaches.

The first developmental perspective

Charles Keiffer, psychologist and Executive Director of the SOS Community Crisis Center in Michigan conducted one of the first empirical studies on personal empowerment, examining empowerment as a change process.22 Keiffer was motivated by Rappaport’s emphasis on rights and abilities, rather than deficits and needs, when addressing people as “citizens” embedded in their political and social environments. Inspired by Rappaport’s ideology, Kieffer realized that there was no research on personal empowerment as an issue of adult learning and development. Through his experience as a clinician, organizer and educator, Kieffer felt this would be an insightful perspective.

In 1984, Keiffer selected fifteen participants who had been active in community-based grassroots organizations, all of whom were characterized by: self-acknowledgement of personal transformation; recognizable transition into proactive and multi-issue engagement; and evidence of continuing commitment to local political processes or grassroots leadership roles.22 These participants engaged in open-ended, reflective, and critical interviews with Keiffer, discussing their empowerment or lack thereof.

Based on these interviews, Keiffer felt that the transition from powerlessness to community participation - or, “participatory competence” - was best characterized as a dynamic of long-term development from sociopolitical “infancy” to sociopolitical “adulthood”.22 His development approach to personal empowerment conceptualized a process with four stages:

  1. Entry: Motivated by the participant’s experience of “provocation”, an event or condition that threatened them or their family.
  2. Advancement: Three core factors are important in this stage to continue the empowerment process, including a mentoring relationship, supportive peer relationships with a collective organization, and the development of a more critical understanding of social and political relations.
  3. Incorporation: The main focus of this stage is on the development of a growing political consciousness.
  4. Commitment: Participants apply their new participatory competence to increasing areas of their lives, subsequently increasing empowerment for both themselves and their community.

Related TDL Content

The business case for women leaders

We hear about empowerment in realms of feminism and workplaces, but what about when we put these two together? This article makes a case for women leaders in businesses, increasing gender equity as well as performance. Take a look for a nuanced approach that will get organizations one step closer to empowerment!


  1. Counter, R., & Underwood, K. (2021, March 24). Changemakers: Canada faces serious challenges, but these leaders show that solutions are possible. The Globe and Mail. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/rob-magazine/article-changemakers-canada-faces-serious-challenges-but-these-leaders-show/
  2. Mehan, D. P. (2021, May 29). Let’s empower vaccine industry to combat COVID-19. Springfield News-Leader. https://www.news-leader.com/story/opinion/2021/05/29/lets-empower-vaccine-industry-combat-covid-19/7468404002/
  3. Damyanova, D. (2021, May 25). Abandon the career hamster wheel and empower your field of possibility. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellevate/2021/05/25/abandon-the-career-hamster-wheel-and-empower-your-field-of-possibility/?sh=c5746cb320a8
  4. Perkins, D. D., & Zimmerman, M. A. (1995). Empowerment theory, research, and application. American Journal of Community Psychology, 23(5), 569-579.
  5. Zimmernman, M. A. (2000). Empowerment Theory. In Handbook of Community Psychology.
  6. Rappaport, K. (1987). Terms of empowerment/exemplars of prevention: Toward a theory for community psychology. American Journal of Community Psychology, 15(2), 121-148.
  7. Birnbaum, N. (1968). The crisis in Marxist sociology. Social Research, 35(2), 348-380.
  8. Correia, D., & Wall, T. (2018). Police: A Field Guide. Verso Books.
  9. Rappaport, J. (1981). In praise of paradox: A social policy of empowerment over prevention. American Journal of Community Psychology, 9(1), 1-25.
  10. Kloos, B., Hill, J., Thomas, E., Wandersman, A., Elias, M., & Dalton, J. (2012). Community Psychology: Linking Individuals and Communities. Cengage Learning.
  11. Em-. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/em-
  12. Lord, J., & Hutchison, P. (1993). The process of empowerment: Implications for theory and practice. Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 12(1), 5-22.
  13. Adams, R. (2008). Empowerment, Participation and Social Work. Palgrave Macmillan.
  14. United Nations. (2020). Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Sustainable Development Goals. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/
  15. Domingo, P., & O’Neil. (2014, June 13). The politics of legal empowerment: Legal mobilisation strategies and implications for development. Overseas Development Institute. https://odi.org/en/publications/the-politics-of-legal-empowerment-legal-mobilisation-strategies-and-implications-for-development/
  16. Wilkinson, A. (1998). Empowerment: Theory and practice. Personnel review, 27(1), 40-56.
  17. Honold, L. (1997). A review of the literature on employee empowerment. Empowerment in Organizations, 5(4), 202-212.
  18. Kasturirangan, A. (2008). Empowerment and programs designed to address domestic violence. Violence Against Women, 14(12), 1465-1475.
  19. Henderson, S. (2003). Power imbalance between nurses and patients: A potential inhibitor of partnership in care. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 12(4), 501-508.
  20. Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). Most people are not WEIRD. Nature, 466, 29.
  21. Yang, S., & Choi, S. O. (2009). Employee empowerment and team performance: Autonomy, responsibility, information and creativity. Team Performance Management, 15(5-6), 289-301.
  22. Kieffer, C. H. (1984). Citizen empowerment: A developmental perspective. Prevention in Human Services, 3(2-3), 9-36.

About the Authors

Dan Pilat's portrait

Dan Pilat

Dan is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. Dan has a background in organizational decision making, with a BComm in Decision & Information Systems from McGill University. He has worked on enterprise-level behavioral architecture at TD Securities and BMO Capital Markets, where he advised management on the implementation of systems processing billions of dollars per week. Driven by an appetite for the latest in technology, Dan created a course on business intelligence and lectured at McGill University, and has applied behavioral science to topics such as augmented and virtual reality.

Sekoul Krastev's portrait

Dr. Sekoul Krastev

Sekoul is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. A decision scientist with a PhD in Decision Neuroscience from McGill University, Sekoul's work has been featured in peer-reviewed journals and has been presented at conferences around the world. Sekoul previously advised management on innovation and engagement strategy at The Boston Consulting Group as well as on online media strategy at Google. He has a deep interest in the applications of behavioral science to new technology and has published on these topics in places such as the Huffington Post and Strategy & Business.

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