Observations on the state of empowerment in today’s organization

Linda Logan, William B. Harley, Joan Pastor, Linda S. Wing, Naftaly Glasman, Lee Hanson, David Collins, Barbara A. Cleary, Jacqueline Miller and Paul Hegedahl

Introduction
In this article, members of the Editorial Advisory Board for this Journal review the state of empowerment in today’s organizations.

William B. Harley
Generally speaking, the state of empowerment in organizations today has improved significantly beyond its position five years ago, but a huge task remains if empowerment is to reach its full potential. Pockets of empowerment within organizations are becoming increasingly common are where low- and mid-level managers have courageously established a subculture of empowerment within an organization which is largely unempowered. Organizations which have established pervasive cultures of empowerment are still quite uncommon. In my experience, the primary source of resistance is upper-level managers who seem The authors unwilling to confront the disparity between the Linda Logan is Editor of Empowerment in Organizations; empowering values they espouse and the disemWilliam B. Harley is President, Harley Training & Consulting, powering behaviors they model. These upperSt Paul, USA; Joan Pastor is President, Joan Pastor & Associlevel managers often respond from ingrained ates, Oceanside, USA; Linda S. Wing is Coach for Organizahabits or compulsions with controlling behavior tional Effectiveness, Human Systems Design, Inc., Edina, USA; which not only reinforces the controlling tenNaftaly Glasman is Professor of Education and Political dencies of some lower-level managers, but Science, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA; Lee destroys the climate of trust and safety which Hanson is Assistant Professor, University of California, San most other managers need if they are to risk Bernardino, USA; David Collins is Senior Lecturer in Human experimentation with empowering behavior. Resource Management, University of Sunderland, UK; Because these upper-level managers were Barbara A. Cleary is with PQ Systems, Inc., Dayton, USA; usually promoted to their current positions for Jacqueline Miller is President, jmiller associates, Burnsville, USA; and Paul Hegedahl is Editor of Ledelse I Dag, Denmark. demonstrating skills in the use of types of controlling behavior, in many cases they are being challenged to change attributes which are tied Abstract Each member of the Journal’s Editorial Advisory Board reviews closely to their sense of identity and self-worth. Changes of this type require conscious choices the state of empowerment in today’s organizations. based not only on self-awareness but also on levels of humility, courage, detachment and commitment which most upper-level managers scarcely seem able to muster. Meanwhile, an ever-increasing cadre of low and mid-level managers, skilled in empowerment, are creeping up the management ranks.

Joan Pastor
Empowerment in Organizations Volume 4 · Number 1 · 1996 · pp. 6–11 © MCB University Press · ISSN 0968-4891

I have mixed reactions about the state of empowerment at this time. The bad news is that 6

Observations on the state of empowerment in today’s organizations

Empowerment in Organizations Volume 4 · Number 1 · 1996 · 6–11

Linda Logan et al.

companies are realizing how difficult it is to “empower” people. Many companies (if not the majority), and the managers and human resource people within them, do not truly understand what empowerment is or exactly what it entails. Furthermore, there are many people who claim to be “experts” in empowerment, and yet create more problems for organizations. I found myself brought into companies several times this past year to fix problems previous consultants had created. Finally, people are so overworked right now owing to downsizing (and so afraid of making a mistake because they do not want to be the next to go) that many are interpreting empowerment as another responsibility which they do not want dumped on their shoulders. Downsizing creates bile in people’s mouths, and so they are often suspicious of even the best CEO’s good intentions. On the good side, downsizing has created the necessity to push authority down and work more in teams. Also, I am seeing much flatter companies now which are ready to go on to the next step in their growth. Management is finally becoming more sophisticated, and more committed to empowerment; once they experience how it really works, managers have much less problem letting go and letting their employees get more involved. A lot of success in successful “empowerment” still goes back to senior management’s intentions, or perceived intentions. One clothing retailer with whom I am currently working has always succeeded by letting other retailers set the fads and fashions. Once a fad looks like it will endure, the retailer jumps in and starts producing the same. However, after years of success with this approach it has discovered it cannot remain a “follower”. To be successful in today’s global market it has to be one of the forerunners, for those who straggle behind may get left behind – the market is changing constantly, and quickly. So this company has been working to streamline the organization, and I am currently working with its distribution center to help to set up teams that will eventually become self-managed, helping them to increase greatly the amount of cross-functional interaction, identifying and increasing JIT training critical to people’s work, hiring the right people, upgrading the whole computer system, and so on. The vice-president 7

is cracking down on managers who cannot or will not change with the changing organizational culture – we are currently working on one key manager who, in particular, has a hard time letting go and letting his people take over decision making and other work which they are more than ready and willing to do. We are getting management and employees to talk honestly with one another and keep one another much more informed. It is exciting to see the growth so far.

Linda S. Wing
When Linda Logan asked me to comment on my view of empowerment as we enter into 1996, I eagerly said “yes”. I am in the camp of business management consultants who still believe the full productive capacity of the workforce will only be achieved by unleashing the full creative potential of the workers, including the managerial contributors. In order to be fair, however, I have to express my concern that the concept of empowerment has not made a significant impact in most organizations. In fact, many organizations have gone back to a more hierarchical structure, arguing that empowerment techniques have done nothing to enhance the achievement of organizational goals. Why might this be the case when, intuitively, empowerment displays such good business sense? Unleashing hundreds of minds surely should result in better and more fruitful outcomes. Why, then, does a significant leap in productivity elude those organizations attempting to implement empowerment? I believe that the answer may lie in understanding the knowledge worker and the future role of management in a society of knowledge workers. The following is a clear, personally experienced example of the problem. At a recent national conference, a knowledgeable and inspirational leader walked to the podium to deliver a “state of the industry” speech to conference attendees. During the speech, the speaker asked the audience to answer six questions relative to the state of the industry, then asked each of the attendees to share their responses with colleagues seated in their immediate vicinity. Each of the participants answered the questions independently, then shared their responses with colleagues seated nearby. I shared with four colleagues. We

Observations on the state of empowerment in today’s organizations

Empowerment in Organizations Volume 4 · Number 1 · 1996 · 6–11

Linda Logan et al.

were surprised to find we had all answered the six questions basically in the same manner; each of us had a similar view of the world, the primary difference being the language used to describe that view; the strategic intent of the thoughts was about the same. This was a surprising display of the collective knowledge base of the knowledge workers in the room, and their interpretation of their world. This amazing display of the “collective” went unnoticed, however, because the speaker failed to ask for audience responses. The speaker went on to answer the six questions raised, answering with basically the same answers we had given in our quick debriefing session, leaving us as listeners somewhat confused and a little frustrated. In essense, this person wasted an hour and a half of our time giving us the answers to the questions we had already answered. Being the professionals we are, we wondered why the time was not spent more productively in problem solving or resolution. Instead, we invested the time and energy of 1,200 professionals redefining what we already knew to be true! This experiential event showed me the power of the collective knowledge of the knowledge workers. It also demonstrated for me the lingering problem we have with leaders who still believe their role is giving answers to a workforce which is now working from the same database of information. As the information gap closes, this simple example shows that the role of leader has changed drastically from “showing and telling” information to: • providing the workforce with an opportunity to understand their commonalities and differences of opinion; • asking important questions which lead the group to think and resolve important issues facing the group; • acting as a facilitator/resource gatherer and facilitator to aid in shaping an appropriate outcome. Other roles may certainly emerge, but this list is a good start. Imagine the power of a group of 1,200 professionals in the room that night beginning to identify possible solutions to the questions raised – a daunting prospect and one which would require “real” leadership! While empowerment has not yet made the inroads into productivity which some of us 8

believe possible, I believe we are close to understanding that the conceptual problem does not lie in the concept of empowerment, but rather in the redefinition of organizational structures and leadership practices which diminish its impact.

Naftaly Glasman
Universities, especially those which are research oriented, work under a shared governance system by faculty and administration at all levels, from the campus academic senate and chief executive officer all the way to department faculty committees and chairs. Progress toward empowerment might be measured by the increase in the time shared governance and is not violated by the administration. The key issue in observing and understanding violations of empowerment is the definition and identification of the point of origin of the authority in a given area. For example, resource-driven purchases of equipment and faculty-driven promotion processes may look like empowering processes which begin at opposite ends from each other. In my own department, empowerment has swung back and forth from one end of the pendulum to the other with the introduction of various factors such as the current chair’s individual characteristics; the involvement of the faculty; the characteristics of the faculty; economic conditions; and the quality of students, to name a few.

Lee Hanson
It appears to me that empowerment, defined as team-based organization, is becoming increasingly common within the “core” labor market of corporate America, that more or less permanently-employed population providing the strategic and technical services firms cannot do without. While this is desirable, the problem is that the core constitutes a minority of the workforce, the people who are best educated and most highly skilled. A vastly larger “periphery” labor market, including low-skilled, often temporary, employees may be experiencing unempowered conditions which are as onerous as anything under mass production, only worse today because wages and benefits are declining while job security vanishes. Should an “empow-

Observations on the state of empowerment in today’s organizations

Empowerment in Organizations Volume 4 · Number 1 · 1996 · 6–11

Linda Logan et al.

ered core/unempowered periphery” workforce structure develop, the entire empowerment movement could wind up largely ignoring the people who, in my view at least, most need and deserve it.

David Collins
The term “empowerment” has been part of the vocabulary of management for perhaps ten years now. This longevity carries with it the suspicion that empowerment might be different – it just might have some more substantial foundation than other buzzwords spawned in this period. It seems appropriate, therefore, that we should pause for reflection. When I pause for reflection I, along with many others, find that there is much about empowerment in organizations which is deserving of further study and analysis. Unfortunately, however, I seem to see the world rather differently from my editorial colleagues. They see things I would love to be able to see. No matter how I try, however, I cannot see them. Instead, where they find empowerment, I find disempowerment. Where they see liberation, all I can see is control. And where they find cause for celebration I find myself, instead, wringing my hands with frustration because I would like to find something to celebrate yet cannot. I would like to report that work is becoming more fulfilling, more rewarding (in all senses) and more meaningful for those involved. Instead, in the UK’s deregulated, “empowered” workplaces, people are damaging their health, and the health and wellbeing of their partners and their families, as they work far harder, for longer, for less reward.

when they hear the word “empowerment”, they are actually taking place as accepted practice in many organizations. As a sign of this impact, it is notable that journals and professional articles in education include the new skills of teamwork and visionary thinking that are required by the marketplace. Schools, often the last to recognize the new challenges which their graduates will face, are taking note of changes in organizations that will have an impact on the way their graduates will have to function. Another hopeful sign lies in physical features – the architecture – of many organizations. More space is being dedicated to group meeting areas where employees can discuss and plan together. No longer reserved only as executive conference areas, these spaces encourage those involved in product design, marketing and sales to make decisions as teams and solve the problems that challenge them. The organizational chart may still be posted in its hierarchical and traditional form, but what happens in the company’s meeting rooms offers evidence that organizational boxes are breaking down into empowered decision making. Restructuring of organizations – often manifested in downsizing and mass layoffs – provides both an opportunity for renewed energy in empowering employees and a simultaneous reversion to old ways of doing things. It remains to be seen how many corporations will emerge from the trauma of restructuring as newlyenergized and empowered organizations, but the potential exists for this to happen. Smaller and more flexible organizations seem to have an edge when it comes to empowerment

Barbara A. Cleary
“Empowerment” continues to be a troublesome word in many organizations, but progress toward its objectives seems to be taking place even with alternative terminology. One measure of progress lies in the recognition of a changing paradigm. Major organizational publications accept teamwork, leadership development and cross-functional decision making as ways of life in corporations and other organizations. Whether or not these concepts are what come to mind for most executives 9

Jacqueline Miller
As a consultant I have witnessed a continuum of empowerment situations in the past year. The “worst case award” definitely goes to a US Government customer service center where a variety of disempowering behaviors (i.e. condescension, autocratic management, racism, spying, etc.) are demonstrated by upper management and training personnel. A majority of the new hires (contract employees) left during the internally delivered training sessions or shortly after starting on line work. Those who

Observations on the state of empowerment in today’s organizations

Empowerment in Organizations Volume 4 · Number 1 · 1996 · 6–11

Linda Logan et al.

stayed feel “trapped” and demonstrate extremes of passive-aggressive behavior. The most delightful scenario was demonstrated at the National Indian Education Association Conference. There I saw “all my relations” from many tribes working together in effective teams for a unified goal: to help “all of our children” through education. As a whole, the convention was well-organized, on time (that dispels a myth about “Indian time”), professionally presented, full of excitement, fun, feasts and celebrations of life and hope for the future. Children and elders were an integral part of the conference and the celebrations. Overall, I do not see much change from year to year in the total picture. Some organizations are role models for empowerment or in the process of increasing their opportunities for empowerment. Others, while using all the right terms in their language, seem to take giant steps backward. Progress and challenge are in balance.

Paul Hegedahl
Regarding empowerment, there is nothing rotton in the state of Denmark! The term “empowerment” is hardly used and you will find no translation. But the thoughts and the values behind empowerment have been in use for many years. It seems natural for Nordic companies and organizations to have empowered employees. Most readers of this journal will be familiar with the worldwide research carried out by Gert Hofstede, a professor from The Netherlands. Gert Hofstede measured several cultural dimensions in more than 50 countries all over the world and compared the findings. Nordic organizations (together with those of Ireland, New Zealand, Austria and Israel) enjoy the lowest power distance between managers and employees, meaning that work is based on consultation and mutual respect. These findings are substantiated by the results from the authoritative World Competitiveness Report 1994 (published by World Economic Forum and IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland). This report shows that managers in Sweden, Denmark and Norway – and, to a lesser degree, Finland – are the most willing OECD countries to delegate authority to subordinates. If these 10

findings are correlated with whether the relations between managers and staff are fragile or productive, again the Nordic countries score very highly. Through the years, these practices have been supported by legislation. Some 20 years ago, it became law in Denmark that employees be represented by their own democratically elected representatives on the board of directors in the companies in which they were employed. Many owners were skeptical at the time, but today everyone agrees that the experience has been very good. Therefore, it is not surprising that some major Danish companies are now among the first to establish the cross-border advisory committees which the EU has decided all multinational EU companies shall establish. Another interesting example is the Association of Danish Labour Unions. They have created a PC-based training and development program to help employees to understand the concept of management better and play a constructive role in their companies. Empowerment is very much alive in Denmark and the other Nordic countries; however, it is not seen as a special theory, technique or discussion, but rather as a natural and effective way of running a company. This, in my opinion, is due to deep cultural values originating in very early times.

Linda R. Logan
I was not surprised to receive mixed reviews from the Editorial Advisory Board on the state of empowerment in today’s organizations. There was quite a range of perception, from David Collin’s reluctant belief that much of the behavior labeled empowerment is little more than a masquerade designed to strengthen control and manipulation to Paul Hegedahl’s belief that the values and practices of empowerment, though not called out as a specific approach or intent, are typically the norm in organizations of the Nordic countries. The USA has its share of the best and the worst. Leaders are particularly held accountable for both failures and successes, as is realistic at the level of organization. Those possessing organizational power who are intent on tight control and individual gain are governed by fear and scarcity and, consequently, are not capable

Observations on the state of empowerment in today’s organizations

Empowerment in Organizations Volume 4 · Number 1 · 1996 · 6–11

Linda Logan et al.

of building empowering structures or modeling empowerment without serious personal growth. They have not learned self-empowerment, which is lesson number one. Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of this work has been to distinguish the concepts of empowerment, being empowered, and empowering others. By naming it, and discussing the attendant values, attitudes and behaviors, we are helping to increase individual awareness and choice. That in itself is empowering. When you can more accurately assess a situation you are in and envision the possibility of what could be, you can make an informed choice. I have been inside organizations, such as those intimated by David Collins, whose leaders talk teamwork and contribution, but whose actions tell a different story. I have chosen to leave those companies. Leaders and organizations no longer supported by employees will eventually see the light. While there are truly entrapping circumstances that make it difficult for some people to exercise their choice, is it not the most basic act of empowerment to take control of our own choices and use our lives and talents fully for collective betterment? My belief is that empowerment starts within and moves outward; it never moves the other way. You might argue that we can teach empowerment to others, as many of us professionally work at doing, but consider

Richard Bach’s view of learning and teaching from The Messiah’s Handbook in his wonderful parable, Illusions: “Learning is finding out what you already know. Doing is demonstrating that you know it. Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you”[1]. It is interesting to note that, repeatedly, our writers identified the same issues as both positive and negative. Lee Hanson, on one hand, is concerned that a large percentage of our workforce is forcibly being thrown out of the security of the corporate nest. They can hardly take advantage of empowerment within organizations. However, I find nothing more empowering (I am not suggesting it is easy or for everyone) than being one’s own boss, of forming one’s own company, even a company of one. Perhaps some of us are being given a crash course in empowerment. I thank the Board for their candid views, an honest look at the deficiencies and some models for all of us to study. The challenge for each of us is to keep our eyes on the vision of empowerment and to seek out the opportunities for selfempowerment each day.

Reference
1 Bach, R., Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, Delacorte Press, New York, NY, p. 46.

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