Empowerment is often incorrectly perceived as a binary choice. Either you empower someone, or you don’t. In reality, your options are more varied than that. We can distinguish between different levels of authority.
“Empowerment is a continuous variable; people can be viewed as more or less empowered, rather than empowered or not empowered.” – G.M. Spreitzer
In your very first driving lesson your driving instructor may have given you the steering wheel, but I’m sure he told you exactly when to go left and when to go right. But after a number of lessons, when you had gained some experience, he might have said “Let’s drive to the shopping center, where you almost rammed a phone booth last week,” and it would have been your job to find a way to get there. And with a really experienced driver, the instructor might have said “Why don't you drive around a bit? Mind if I take a nap?”
For each individual activity we can distinguish seven levels of authority (modified from Susan M. Heathfield):
Level 1: Tell: You make decisions and announce them to your people. (This is actually not empowerment at all.)
Level 2: Sell: You make decisions, but you attempt to gain commitment from workers by “selling” your idea to them.
Level 3: Consult: You invite and weigh input from workers before coming to a decision. But you make it clear that it's you who is making the decisions.
Level 4: Join: You invite workers to join in a discussion and to reach consensus as a group. Your voice is equal to the others.
Level 5: Advise: You attempt to influence workers by telling them what your opinion is, but ultimately you leave it up to them to decide.
Level 6: Confirm: You let the team decide first, with the suggestion that it would be nice, though not strictly necessary, if they are able to convince you afterward.
Level 7: Delegate: You leave it entirely up to the team to deal with the matter, while you go out and have a good time.
You can vary these levels of authority, depending on the topic. For example:
I told our people that I would be starting a new business unit in our organization. (There was no reason for selling this to our employees, because the one I had to sell it to was our CEO.)
I did sell the business model, and what type of customers we’re after, to the people that I selected to join me in my effort.
For the name of our business unit I decided to consult all team members, asking for their ideas.
When it was time to select a logo, I invited all team members to join me in ranking and rating the different designs.
The technical design of our product is ultimately a team responsibility, though I did advise them concerning some architectural issues.
I don't really care who is doing what in the team, but I do appreciate it when they ask me sometimes to confirm that they made the right choices.
Finally, I delegate all the hard work. I was involved in coding for a while, but none of my code survived the team's refactoring efforts, so I've deduced that I'm better at adding value in other areas.
Every topic requires its own level of authority, and the further you go the better it is. But in some cases, it is best to start by telling or selling, and then gradually increase the authority of team members as their experience grows.
"The best way to empower team members is gradually and systematically. […] Responsibilities for self-management and decision making should be turned over to employees on an as-ready basis."
– S. Caudron
It will probably take our team some time before they're able to completely refactor my business models into something I cannot recognize, as they did with my code. But if they do, and the results are again better then mine, you won't hear me complaining. I would be the manager of an extremely powerful team.