cover photo Reflect Blog
Ingo Kallenbach

Control versus empowerment - power to the people

Many employees currently work in home office. Before the Corona pandemic, there were numerous companies that were critical of working from home. One of the points of criticism was - although rarely really openly expressed - the lack of control.

On the other hand, many employees feel left alone and overwhelmed in the home office. This discrepancy between control and empowerment in the change from Industry 3.0 to the New Work Organization will be highlighted in this article.




In many companies clear control systems are established and that is a good thing. Just think of the current approval processes of the pharmaceutical companies for a vaccine for Covid19. Here we are happy about detailed processes, clear regulations and elaborated approval levels, because the health and safety of people is at stake. The companies are working flat out on a vaccine and yet the development continues.

Since 9/11 there have also been increased security precautions in airport handling. The consequences of these stricter security checks were clearly seen in the long queues.

At the same time, this also shows the main disadvantages of an intensified control system - the slowing down of the overall process. Take the recording of working hours as an example. The employee has to record the working time, which ties up working time and resources. Then the entries are checked, which ties up additional resources.

However, control can also be an instrument for quality assurance. For example, if an article is edited again before publication, errors are reduced and the text is optimized.

Besides time delays and increased resources, psychological aspects also play a role. People strive for autonomy and professionalism, so they like to do their work autonomously without having someone constantly looking over their shoulder.

In this context it is interesting to note that the hormone oxytocin can lead to increased confidence. Michael Kosfeld (2005) and his colleagues from the University of Zurich were the first to prove this. Oxytocin is considered a kind of happiness hormone, which can simultaneously reduce stress and - according to recent studies by French researchers (Angela Sirigu) - probably also positively influence the social abilities of people.

So, to all micromanagers on this planet: Ensure increased oxytocin levels, which makes it easier to let go...


As companies need to respond more and more quickly to the demands of their customers, empowering their employees is a way for companies to better meet the demands of the VUCA world. However, the hierarchies that are still pronounced in many companies often prevent them from reacting adequately and, above all, promptly to the pull of the market.

Moreover, it has been scientifically proven that the productivity of employees can be increased in a targeted manner if they are more involved.

This type of empowerment is often achieved simply by delegating responsibility. However, taking responsibility is only one side of the coin - the employees must want to, be able to and have the necessary knowledge to be able to do justice to the transferred responsibility.


Employees are given greater scope for action and decision-making. The transfer of responsibility should, however, take place gradually. The following questions can support this gradual implementation: How can my employees assume more responsibility? What does this responsibility look like? What decisions should they make in the future? On which decisions should they be informed, consulted or have a right of veto?


Transferring responsibility is actually no big deal and can happen quite quickly. But: do the employees want to take on more responsibility at all?

This requires a suitable framework within which the motives and expectations of the employees can be explored together. One should not assume per se that it is enough to simply be able to transfer responsibility. A mutual understanding of what expectations are associated with the assumption of responsibility should understandably be discussed and agreed upon.

In addition to the purpose of the company, lived corporate values can also play a role. In the best case scenario, these create a kind of target culture (mindset) and can make it clear to all employees of the company which behavior is desired.

The desired target culture represents an important frame of reference and thus creates an important basic orientation to which all employees can orient themselves. Nevertheless, each person is to be considered individually in his or her personality, role and context, and solutions are to be found appropriately for each situation and individual.

The willingness to do so may also depend on other factors, which will be discussed below.


Able to

In order to take on new tasks, the question naturally arises: Which competencies, abilities and skills are already available among the colleagues* and which still have to be built up. To what extent do they have the right skills set to be able to do justice to the responsibility they have been given? Which qualification measures are needed? How do these fit in with the personal development of the respective employee?

Entirely in line with the development of individual potential, there are outstanding opportunities to qualify employees very specifically and in accordance with their potential. Concepts that focus on personal responsibility, such as job crafting or self-directed learning, offer wonderful opportunities to transfer responsibility step by step and appropriately.


One last factor determines the assumption of responsibility: it is simply a matter of the necessary knowledge to be able to solve a task. Knowledge can mean the necessary expertise, but also the knowledge of important control elements of the company, such as corporate goals, corporate strategy, sales figures, market shares, etc.

Only those who are well informed can make smart and meaningful decisions. So if decisions are to be taken where the actual competence lies, then decision-makers* also need an overview of the key figures.

However, the transparency of key figures alone is not enough. Rather, a meaningful bundling of information is necessary that allows colleagues to quickly access the information relevant to them. This is the real art of knowledge management. Simply making the wealth of information transparent is useless and can even lead to disadvantages, because when in doubt, employees no longer see the wood for the trees.

In this respect, the transfer of knowledge is also of major importance when it comes to transferring responsibility.


Control and empowerment both have their place in the world of work. Even in a new work organization, the dogma of abolishing all control would therefore be completely wrong.

Control always where it is really necessary to gain quality and security. However, it should never stand in the way of maximum empowerment on the employee side.

Therefore, in a New Work Organization I would proclaim a mindset that acts according to the motto: as much empowerment as possible, as little control as necessary. With this balance it should be possible to trust and empower employees on the one hand, but on the other hand to establish control mechanisms that are meaningful and understood and that do not lead to boycotts due to lack of understanding or conscious disregard of the guidelines.

In an accelerated world there is a need for fast, smart decisions that are made by people on the spot. By gaining the ability to react, companies become more robust to market changes.

The empowerment of employees does not work overnight. It requires a step-by-step approach and the willingness of management and executives to embrace new ways of thinking and working. As is always the case with such transformations, even if they are gradual and not imposed company-wide, not all employees will want to follow this path. A certain degree of fluctuation is therefore foreseeable.

However, if you can let go and give employees and entire teams sufficient room for independent work and decision-making, you can see the first positive results after 12-18 months.

In the best case, employees can become entrepreneurs in their own company. Managers do not need to worry about this: Leadership work is distributed and they themselves can concentrate on the activities that best suit their individual motives, competencies and talents.




Kosfeld, M. Heinrichs, P. J. Zak, U. Fischbacher, E. Fehr: Oxytocin increases trust in humans. In: Nature. 435, 2005.
Schermuly, C.: Empowerment: strengthening and developing employees. In Springer Reference, July 2015