The Disempowering Logic of Empowerment
David Collins

In common with a whole host of “hot” management topics – continuous improvement, total quality and flexibility – no one is against empowerment. In many ways, opposition to empowerment could be construed as the height of professional and indeed social folly. However, the debate over topics such as empowerment is cast in dualistic terms. In everyday speech, dualistic couplets explaining topics such as empowerment fall naturally together. The problem being that one half of the couplet occupies a legitimized and morally superior position to its less privileged counterpart. Thus empowerment is a “good”, disempowerment a “bad”. Continuous improvement is a “good”, non-improvement a “bad”. Of course it is not only the field of management which throws up and simultaneously suffers from such dualism. Tony Berry[1] reviewing a book on critical theory notes:
Stealing the word “critical” and using it only to apply to critical theory is one of those wonderfully extravagant gestures that is essentially hegemonic in nature. What it appears to do is lay a grand claim that only this approach has any critical content and therefore, in one of its episodes of silence, ensures that there is a suggestion that all other discourse is essentially uncritical (p. 279).

argue against the concept of empowerment per se. Instead it will investigate the logic underlying empowerment in work organizations as a means to legitimize a critical appraisal of empowerment in such settings. Analyzing the changing contours and nature of worker involvement and participation, it will be argued that, far from heralding a new era in which workers are extensively involved in a range of business and management matters, the current focus on empowerment is underpinned by a logic of disempowerment.

Empowerment is generally acknowledged as being related to the attitudes and beliefs of individuals, both singly and as members of groups (see, for example, the contributions to the inaugural issue of Empowerment)[2]. When states of empowerment are described, these states are often closely tied to attributes such as confidence and motivation. In terms of developing feelings of empowerment within individuals and groups, a key role is accorded to positive social experiences and situations which allow for personal growth. In some sense, then, empowerment is viewed as a social phenomenon which is related to learned patterns of behavior. How workers develop or lose the feeling of empowerment, and what managers can do about this, has become a key
I am indebted to Syd Weston for perceptive and constructive comments on an earlier draft of this article.

With one eye on my professional and social standing, therefore, this article will not seek to
Empowerment in Organizations, Vol. 2 No. 2, 1994, pp. 14-21 © MCB University Press, 0968-4891



issue. Here much attention has been devoted to providing appropriate social situations which allow worker participation such that feelings of empowerment may develop. An analysis of worker involvement and participation, therefore, represents a useful lever into the discussion of empowerment. In many ways participation and empowerment are natural corollaries. Pateman[3], for example, discussing participation, notes that effective grass-roots participation in political structures, requires a feeling of political efficacy on the part of those involved. In short, effective participation requires a feeling of empowerment and vice versa. Setting the discussion of empowerment within the context of debates on participation also helps to establish continuities in debate which can, all too readily, be overlooked when the subject under discussion is change. Rather than mystify the development of empowerment, it is important to understand and trace the growing interest in such innovations. Unless we do this, empowerment will be viewed simply as a new managerial panacea conjured up by consultants and academics, entirely divorced from previous periods and the experiences of those whose role it will be to implement such suggestions. It is important, therefore, both from a practical and an academic point of view, to set the debate in terms of long-run and ongoing issues and problems which characterize the employment relationship. Thus, while the idea of empowerment is, indeed, a seductive one, we must not let optimism for, and commitment to such an idea color our views unduly. If we let our enthusiasm run away with us, we will lose sight of the factors that promote managerial interest and we also run the risk of overlooking the factors which make empowered states problematic to achieve. Instead of assuming that we can create the world anew we must, when analyzing changes such as this, always have an understanding of the ways in which the context of change may alternately promote and hinder our endeavors.

As noted above, an analysis of participation and involvement can provide this much-needed perspective.

The Need for Involvement
Any discussion of involvement must acknowledge that employee involvement is not the simple product of a new enlightened era of empowerment. Instead it is properly viewed as a core aspect of work organizations. This, of course, does not mean that formal structures for employee involvement exist in all firms. We should note, however, that historically speaking such structures do have a long pedigree. Employee involvement in work is central to the processes of work organization in a capitalist society and can take place without the requirement for such formal structures. It is equally true, however, that in recent years employee involvement has become something which managers have tried to solicit from their workers with increased vigor. Traditionally managers looked to the employment contract to specify and ensure that workers performed as required. The rights of owners and managers to direct and discipline workers were enshrined in property rights which such contracts sought to protect. However, obvious limits to this simple contractual view of management and organization tended to limit the efficacy of such an approach. For output to be realized, workers must always go beyond what can be specified contractually. Indeterminacy, therefore, is at the heart of any contract of employment. Contracts of employment are drawn up to cover general events and circumstances and thus there will always be aspects of work which the contract cannot cover and cannot enforce. As Bendix[4] notes:
Beyond what commands can effect and supervision can control, beyond what incentives can induce and penalties prevent, there exists an exercise of discretion important even in relatively menial jobs, which managers of



economic enterprises seek to enlist for the achievement of managerial ends (p. 256).

Clearly, then, there is a need for some form of involvement on the part of workers. Without some feeling of involvement, whether it be based on professionalism, emotional attachment or some other set of factors, the plain facts are that work would simply not be done on time, or to the requisite quality. Indeed, perhaps not done at all. As MacInnes [5] notes:
Management, no matter how expert, cannot set out in advance exactly what must be done under all circumstances and how, but must rely to some extent on the workers’ co-operation, initiative and experience (p. 130).

commentators and business gurus. Thus the fact that all parties in industry may agree on the worth of employee involvement may do little more than prove the semantic elasticity of the term. For example, Wickens[9] claims:
We seek to delegate and revolve staff in discussion and decision making, particularly in those areas in which they can effectively contribute so that all may participate in the effective running of NMUK (p. 82).

Indeed historical studies[6,7] have served to remind us that, in having the ability to perform their work tasks, all workers are empowered to some degree. However, arguments for looking more closely at continuities do not mean that there is never anything new. Clearly arguments that build from an understanding of the role of continuities through change must always acknowledge the specifics of the present. However, in order to do this properly, we must understand the perennial issues which surround participation and involvement at work. In the following sections the problems both of analyzing worker involvement and of managerial interest in involvement and participation will be examined.

The Ambiguity of Involvement
A key problem is encountered as soon as we seek to analyze employee involvement in work. The problem is basically one of the elasticity of such a concept or, as Cressey and MacInnes[8] might put it, a problem of semantics partly intertwined with expressions of a range of political and academic viewpoints. Not only does the term involvement carry different implications for those subject to it at work, it also carries widely different connotations for a range of academic

However, the above statement is clearly open to debate as to what counts as effective contribution, appropriate participation and the effective running of a large-scale organization such as NMUK. Anyone pretending otherwise would be engaged in self-delusion. Indeed, this debate is acknowledged, implicitly, in the complex of methods used to engage and involve workers in NMUK. As Blyton and Turnbull[10] note, Nissan’s emphasis on “quality, flexibility and teamwork” could just as easily be read as “control, exploitation and surveillance”. As an attempt to pierce such semantic confusion it is useful to try to distinguish, analytically, between different types of employee involvement. At a basic level, then, it is useful to distinguish direct versus indirect involvement. Direct employee involvement includes those initiatives which focus explicitly on the individual worker and the immediate work group. Thus the direct forms include a limited delegation of areas of responsibility, previously guarded as managerial, through the redesign of the organization of work. This type of involvement would also include an increase in certain worker responsibilities as these relate to production. Thus the creation of semiautonomous work groups and devolved worker responsibility for quality would be included here. Indirect forms of employee involvement are concerned with areas of decision making which have more of a policy character. Ostensibly the function of this form of involvement is more concerned with worker representation than the



development of functional motivation alone, although there are argued to be links between these two. These indirect forms include worker representation on management boards, consultative committees and, of course, trade union collective bargaining. However, what such a dichotomy still fails to grasp is the fluidity of the terms involvement, consultation and participation. Collective bargaining, quality circles, quality task forces, autonomous work groups and worker participation, are all forms of shorthand for the over-arching concept of employee involvement. The problem being that each covers a wide range of ideas and a variety of potentials for the outcomes of employee involvement. A continuum may be used to express the fluidity of the concept as a whole. Logically this continuum would, at one polar extreme, be concerned with joint decision making, while at the other extreme there would be no formal employee involvement beyond that which would be minimally required to achieve some basic level of output. In essence this continuum turns on the extent to which the balance of power in the enterprise is altered by the type of employee involvement in operation. To illustrate this we might postulate that at the low employee involvement pole of the continuum we would find forms of management such as Taylor’s Scientific Management. In Taylorist management systems, employee involvement is systematically removed from production systems in attempts to design work scientifically and so boost output. Here, workers are not so much involved in the production and management systems, as
One-way information exchange No form of employee involvement catered for Joint consultation

Joint decision making Worker control

Figure 1. A Logical Continuum of Employee Involvement and Participation

engaged through the carrot of high wage rewards. The other end of the continuum is probably more of a logical extreme than the low involvement pole, since this seems to imply some fully developed form of industrial democracy or workers’ soviet. Employee involvement, then, is a broad term which covers an extremely broad range of concepts of which any developed analysis of involvement would have to take note. Unfortunately few accounts of involvement within mainstream analyses of management, or of the analysis of change within organizations, exhibit this reflective quality. Instead a small range of academic viewpoints is dominant. Part of the problem for the analysis of employee involvement is the extent to which the dominant accounts are written from an implicit ideological perspective which is never made explicit. Indeed, the choice of the term, employee involvement, in contemporary debate, could be viewed as a betrayal of a particular type of thinking which has political implications, both organizationally and academically. Different subject disciplines tend to adopt different terms to discuss related concepts. The choice of these terms is not random. Instead the terms chosen denote different agendas and point toward different problematics. Industrial relations, for example, would tend to view employee involvement as a sub-set of a larger discussion of worker participation. Within the boundaries of industrial relations, many writers would be dismissive of the term involvement[11,12], viewing it as an unnecessarily restrictive initiative designed to give only the illusion of some more extensive form of participation. Indeed, from this perspective the term employee involvement might even be viewed as an attempt to restrict the debate and in effect, erase the rightward extremes of the continuum, since the term involvement seems to deny any more extensive input from workers to decision-making processes. On this basis employee involvement fails Pateman’s test for genuine participation as



offering participation in the formulation of strategy and decisions rather than being involved only in their execution[3]. It is also interesting to note, over the course of the last decade or two, how the vocabulary of this debate has changed as a particular group of commentators and problematics has come centre stage. In the late 1970s the debate was conducted in terms of democracy and social justice and was assumed to operate in an arena of collective representation. In short, effective worker participation, and so, effective worker involvement in production related decisions, was assumed to take place through trade union representation of worker interests. Over time, however, the debate has been recast, moving from collective representation towards a focus on individuals, the transfer of information and a range of related initiatives such as financial participation. Increasingly, involvement has come to mean some restricted form of information exchange by which managers communicate directly with workers in order to smooth the path to some form of change or development within the organization. As was mentioned above, and as the following sections will demonstrate, such changes in the terms of the debate are illuminating and deserve discussion. Rather than present this current form of involvement as part of the natural order of things, as the members of this now dominant grouping of commentators do, we need to investigate why such changes and adaptations have come about and why changes, ostensibly toward empowerment, are sought. The problem, then, with mainstream and currently popular accounts of worker involvement is that these accounts are conducted almost exclusively within an historical and unitary frame of reference to the exclusion of other debates and forms of theoretical and, indeed, historical input. One way to critique the involvement philosophies popularized by management writers and those concerned with empowerment, therefore, is to attack the rhetoric of involvement and

participation and, from this, examine the respective roles of managers and workers. Here, as Ramsay and Beirne[13] demonstrate, what is often termed participation, with connotations of extensive involvement and representation, most often equates only with some highly restricted form of involvement located toward the left pole of our continuum. Here the function of “participation”, as far as management is concerned, is to ensure a level of output at the requisite level of quality. This is perfectly understandable, but we must realize that it circumscribes what is to be achieved through participation. From this perspective the function of “participation” seems to be legitimation of a managerially controlled agenda, not the representation of worker interest within a fuller debate. The concern which surely must be raised is, can the experience of such involvement in practice (as distinct from in rhetoric), build confidence, can it provide appropriate situations for personal growth, in short, can such “participation” really be empowering?

Involvement and Participation in Context
The growing use of the term and the increasing number of journal articles on the subject of empowerment is testament to the fact that some form of change must have taken place, otherwise we should still be discussing the merits of participation as distinct from empowerment. At face value the record of involvement in the 1980s does sound different and remarkably like empowerment. Throughout the 1980s managers have apparently turned to embrace involvement and participation with renewed vigor. As managers have done this during a period when clear attacks on managerial prerogative appear to be absent, we might be tempted to bid a fond farewell to the 1970s and the conflict-oriented views of writers such as Ramsay[14]. We might be tempted to say that, in the 1980s, visions of the divided nature of work



organizations became redundant as managers dropped the idea of controlling and restraining workers and, instead, worked to find ways to release talent and energy. Perhaps, then, the 1980s represent one of those historical watersheds favored by historians in their analyses. Indeed there is a range of indicators which mark the 1980s off from the preceding decade. Here we might include the sharp rise in unemployment, the decline of trade unions and the renewed focus on managers and enterprise more generally. We might, then, be tempted to say that advances in management education and changes in the character of society itself have altered the world of work and allowed more sophisticated and realistic work relations to flourish. But in truth this particular analysis of change and worker involvement does not constitute the knockout punch to Ramsay which a casual first reading might lead us to believe. Neither does it lend support to the idea of a developing interest in empowerment in any simple or unproblematic way. To some considerable degree the arguments for empowerment seem to rest on sophistry and semantic confusion over the issues of power and control and how these can be realized. The growth of certain types of direct participation in an era of apparently low worker power does not negate Ramsay’s cycles-of-control argument. Thus if Ramsay’s focus on control is so wide of the mark, we must ask just why did managers rekindle their interest in participation post-1979 and why has empowerment come center stage? The truth is that while we might accord some role to factors such as increasing levels of managerial education as promoting interest in participation, control remains at the heart of this managerial interest. The growing significance of product markets and competition in periods of relative labor harmony, as in the 1980s, calls for management control just as surely as labor unrest would.

What is termed empowerment, therefore, equates only to involvement and job participation, since workers lack any voice in the formulation or development of policy matters or strategic concern. In the 1970s attempts were made to develop such worker inputs to decision making by fostering representative participation, but the 1980s have represented a retreat from such ideas. Instead of participating generally in managerial decisions, workers are now offered involvement only in a narrow way. In this sense what has come to be viewed as the decade of empowerment has actually been based on declining levels of worker influence. Management control has not been rolled back. If anything it has been reconfigured and reasserted and, but for one caveat which will be addressed below, the arguments for empowerment as a fact of organizational life lie in tatters. The arguments for the persistence of, and indeed, increase in control, do not necessarily close the debate on empowerment and its underlying logic. One increasingly favored argument could be raised in defense. The argument runs like this. If the 1970s still color the issues of the 1990s to some considerable degree, can we not do what many managers have been exhorted to do; refuse to accept the status quo and change culture to allow empowerment to flourish? Recently the argument over involvement and participation in industrial relations has lurched forward in this direction. The prospect of an altogether new era in involvement and so the emergence of empowerment as a new departure point for the management of organizations is one of the supposed benefits of changing the culture of organizations. If true, such an argument could make Ramsay’s ideas of stunted or pseudo-participation redundant since, in these new cultures, commitment is viewed as replacing control and empowerment replaces the need for discipline and surveillance.



A New Era in Involvement?
It has been argued that the current and surely continuing interest in total quality management (TQM) could foster a new era in involvement which, unlike earlier forms, could be characterized by greater longevity. The record of quality circles in improving the level and quality of output is mixed. In management terms such initiatives produce good results for short periods, but, in the UK context at least, such initiatives seem to break down within a few years. TQM, it is argued, represents a subtly different approach to management and involvement and so could represent a more sustainable form of employee involvement. Hill[15] argues that TQM represents, to some degree, a culture change in work where managers as well as workers share the blame for poor quality. In essence, Hill argues that this culture change represents the ability to harness commitment and may lead to more long-lasting forms of involvement and so more extensive two-way contributions. However, we should not be too ready to accept the fact of cultural change at work as an altogether new departure from the past. Thus we would have to acknowledge that in work organizations “commitment”, a cornerstone of empowerment, implies not the absence of control, but a range of other ways of ensuring and implementing control. Hill’s argument for a new era in involvement, therefore, argues not for the end of control and the birth of commitment, but the complex management of control and commitment or, if you will, the control of commitment. There is no reason to believe, therefore, that culture change would be built on the generalized empowerment of workers and the redundancy of control mechanisms. Indeed, in support of the arguments of this paper, critical accounts of culture change tend to support the idea that the management of culture within work organizations is an inherently disempowering process. In spite of the rhetoric of dynamism and commitment to production, the role of workers, aside from their direct

production interface, is designed to be a passive acceptance of management goals and the strong managerial leadership which is said to be necessary for culture change[16]. We are, therefore, left with the position that the cultural changes required for empowerment, and the involvement strategies designed to facilitate and reinforce attempts to develop empowerment and manage culture, are built on ideas which deny scope for worker involvement. Models of culture change and empowerment, therefore, effectively displace the need for inquiring, confident and selfsufficient workers, thanks to a focus on strong managerial leaders and sheep-like followers. In practice, and indeed in design, empowerment disempowers.

For some people, the practical relevance of the preceding discussion may seem obscure. Why attack and knock down ideas which seek only to make practical suggestions and contributions to business enterprises? In the absence of having something practical and constructive to add, should academics not remain silent? Such claims, however, turn on a mistaken notion of “practical” matters and represent a failure to examine what, of necessity, underpins decisions on practical courses of action. Practical matters cannot be divorced from theoretical matters. Any practical steps to address problem issues must be based on a consideration of the important features of the problem faced. Theory supplies such insights into key areas for practical attention. An explicit analysis of theory, therefore, illuminates the plurality of ideas, and so, the problems which surround issues such as empowerment and participation in practice. If managers and trade unionists are to take anything from this article, I hope it will be this. Long-term trust and success come not from obscuring issues and attempts to cloak dissent. Unfortunately this is the outcome of empowerment strategies in practice since



workers are denied any real voice in organizations. Instead, consensus (which is really what managers seek through their interest in empowerment and what the disempowering logic of empowerment attempts to guarantee), is far more likely to emerge and be sustained where there are structures which allow representation of interest and not simply information exchange. In Britain this seems to have been forgotten as managers increasingly try to bypass trade unions by building parallel involvement structures. Recent evidence from Europe, however, points toward the shortsightedness of such measures. European human resource management policies have operated on the basis of including, not excluding, representative participation and, while indicators of success on such matters are difficult to pin down, the competitive record of a range of European companies certainly gives food for thought. Clearly, then, there is scope for worker involvement. The quotation from Bendix shows that this has always been so. However, there is also room for empowerment – not in the restricted sense of job participation, which is driven by a disempowering logic; instead there is room for empowerment initiatives which allow and indeed encourage representative participation. There is no a priori reason why TQM and such forms of participation and empowerment could not be coterminous. If such initiatives are allowed to flourish, models of culture change just might become both credible and, perhaps, more palatable.


1. Berry, T., Book Review in British Journal of Management, Vol. 4 No. 4, 1993, pp. 277-9. 2. Empowerment in Organizations, Vol. 1 No. 1, 1993.

3. Pateman, C., Participation and Democratic Theory, Cambridge University Press, London, 1970. 4. Bendix, R., Work and Authority in Industry, Wiley, New York, NY, 1956. 5. MacInnes, J., Thatcherism at Work, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1987. 6. Braverman, H., Labor and Monopoly Capital, Free Press, New York, NY, 1974. 7. Zuboff, S., In the Age of the Smart Machine, Heinemann, Oxford, 1988. 8. Cressey, P and MacInnes, J., “Voting for . Ford: Industrial Democracy and the Control of Labour”, Capital and Class, Vol. 11, 1980, pp. 5-33. 9. Wickens, P The Road to Nissan, Flexibility, ., Quality, Teamwork, Macmillan, London, 1987. 10. Blyton, P and Turnbull, P The Dynamics of . ., Employee Relations, Macmillan, London, 1994. 11. Brannen, P Batstone, E., Fatchett, D. and ., White, P The Worker Directors: A ., Sociology of Participation, Hutchinson, London, 1976. 12. Garrahan, P and Stewart, P The Nissan . ., Enigma: Flexibility at Work in a Local Economy, Cassell, London, 1992. 13. Ramsay, H. and Beirne, M., “Computer Redesign and ‘Labour Process’ Theory: Towards a Critical Appraisal”, in Knights, D. and Wilmott, H. (Eds), New Technology and The Labour Process, Macmillan, London, 1988. 14. Ramsay, H., “Cycles of Control”, Sociology, Vol. 11 No. 3, 1977, pp. 481-506. 15. Hill, S., “Why Quality Circles Failed but Total Quality Management Might Just Succeed”, British Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 29 No. 4, 1991, pp. 541-68. 16. Thackray, J., “The Corporate Culture Rage”, Management Today, February 1986. David Collins is Lecturer in Human Resource Management at Sunderland Business School, Sunderland, UK.