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EMPOWERMENT

The Need, Barriers, Measures and Implications

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

TITLE PAGE
1. Introduction 3
2. Employee Empowerment and Participative work redesign 4

History of Employee Treatment 4


Pre 21st century changes 5

3. Workplace Challenges 7

Scientific Management and its Legacy


7 Confusion with
Empowerment Concepts 8 Acceptance and
Attitudinal Inertia 11

4. Setting the Pace 11


Recognition 13
Corrective Measures 14
Sustaining the Pace 15
5. Summary 16
6. Annexure 1 17
7. References 18

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INTRODUCTION
Helping people grow and achieve their dreams is the fastest route to
success; both theirs and yours."
- T. Harv Eker
Growth was never an individual prerogative and never will be. The
limits of human capabilities still remain undiscovered. How much a person
can develop and realize his or her potential is a function of the
circumstances that govern his or her freedom and history stands testimony
to the fact that human potential generally suffers under degrading and
imperial conditions. The above statement by motivational speaker T. Harv
Eker indicates the importance of helping people discover and develop their
innate potential, which is the safest and surest way to achieving overall
growth which especially stands to be true in context of the age-old
organisational relationship between subordinate and superior.

The functionality of any kind of working system requires basic


principles. In the times of Taylor and Ford, these principles were basically
that of macho-management which predominantly saw that profits were
made whilst ignoring worker conditions, both physical and psychological.
The changing conditions coupled with the undesired results of Scientific
Management changed the way organisations felt about prerequisites of
growth and thus ejected Fordist and Taylorist theories, however with great
reluctance.

This essay intends to support the worker centrality of the remit and
need to embody empowerment theories in organisational programmes for
development via participation, consultation and cooperation. Then, the
various impediments facing workplace and organisational restructuring will
be discussed in terms of extent and scope. The last part includes directives
that can be implemented into organisational strategy to effect change that
makes workforce empowerment as effective as possible.

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EMPLOYEE EMPOWERMENT AND PARTICIPATIVE WORK REDESIGN
A historic account and the need for empowerment

It’s imminent in today’s times when “reporting relationships are


shifting, and new talent-management tools and approaches are constantly
emerging”2, that managers realise the importance of their workforce. The
concept of empowerment deals with engaging the workforce not only in
critical thinking of their jobs but also reflective management of their work in
order to develop latent human potential because as John F. Kennedy
rightly said “The human mind is our fundamental resource.”

In its rudimentary sense, “empowerment is essentially about


collective influence and the sharing of knowledge, insight and experience of
knowledge to improve organisational performance”3. This indicates the
need to realise potential of the workforce and tap into the human resources
whilst avoiding the mistake of limiting access of employees to
developmental activities, because it is a primitive practice that does not fit
into today’s changing civil society3.

History of Employee Treatment

A retrospective view to the “folly of restricting access”3 can help


substantiate the importance of empowerment and participative
opportunities in current dynamically changing business environments.
In 1943, Abraham Maslow became the first person to delve into the
human psyche to investigate what motivates human beings through his
hierarchy of needs10. The study triggered tremendous interest in human
motivational study but with an intention of exploiting it. Maslow’s needs
theory was based on an undeniably incorrect premise of categorisation of
human needs and on the assumption that humans could be motivated by
money. The validity of this assumption may survive during adverse
economic conditions but in today’s contexts, the premise dies a brutal
death.

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In 1908, Ford’s assembly line concept in his car making business,
that shot him to fame applied needs theory practically, when financial
incentives like ‘five dollar a day’ and ‘Americanisation program’ were
introduced in order to affect workers’ Psychological and Esteem needs
based on Maslow’s theory. The reason for Ford and his company’s
resounding success in the 1900’s was the economic condition that was
presented to his methods. The labour was malleable and in need of
financial help. The ‘low skill’ requirement agenda and better pays formed
the basis of employee attraction. His deskilling methods via job division
brought price of cars to widely affordable levels and hence his company
survived competition. However, adverse labour conditions in his factories
overtime caused increasing absenteeism, mental and physical health
concerns and counter productivity due to rigid labour behaviour in times of
buoyant markets3. In addition, his labour management methods were highly
criticised as being dehumanising and opportunistically imperial by critics of
Taylorism like Harry Braverman and Anthony Gramsci,
Ford could be easily accused to follow Taylor’s ideas in his car
manufacturing organisation for labour management. The main ideas of
labour division, work segmentation, surveillance and financial incentives for
motivation11 used by Ford could be directly correlated with Taylorism.
Although appreciated for the profits they bore, overtime, incompetence and
non-humanistic facets emerged because of two reasons; first being the
effect of changing markets on the way management dealt with their
employees and effect of this on an informed customers’ perspective. The
second reason was increasing awareness of the workforce about their
rights and demand for humane and worker centred management practices.

Pre 21st Century changes


The QWL movement and Human relations movement were the first
ones to draw attention to employee welfare as a managerial concern
through “participation and empowerment, theoretically by considering the
impact of systems and machinery from the standpoint of employees.”3

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The outcome of these ideas was a more responsive system of
management that, as a turnaround from Taylorism and Fordism, offered
autonomy of working groups and freedom of thought. It was intended to
promote “meaningful, enriching and productive experience”3 to the workers.
More specifically; Managers were asked to assign their workers with more
meaningful work so that they have a sense of achievement. The workers
were allowed to move between jobs and to work in groups to develop
responsive and critical thinking. Job contents were revised from a worker
point of view because it was the worker who knew the job and details of its
performance. But these “suffered serious setbacks in times of recession
and corporate instability, confronting frequent backpedalling and fluctuating
patterns of managerial responsiveness”3. This indicated the need for
progressive management idea that enjoins pragmatic change patterns
which obviate the effects of the aforementioned factors of prior failures.
Empowerment is being proposed as one such progressive management
idea.
Illustrating the effects of offering autonomy of decisions and freedom
to act as a part of the psychological contract from the Loeb centre for
Nursing and Rehabilitation located in New York, Susan Bower-Ferres,
assistant director of the Loeb Centre describes it as one that offers the
registered nurse to develop her role in a system facilitated unencumbered
environment. Organisationally facilitated environment for participative
working was able to affect “nurse accountability and coordination between
physicians, other departments and outside agencies.”5 The result was a
statistically proven improvement record of active service the centre had
rendered in a four year span. This proves the reliability of empowerment in
a dynamic setting of a nursing centre where service demands are often
unpredictable and sudden.

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WORKPLACE CHALLENGES

Managing Innovation at work

Empowerment has been a controversial issue ever since its inception


whilst the development of worker centred approaches to labour
management during the 1970’s.Its survival and pace of dispersion across
industrial think tanks is a testimony to its ambitious nature. But the
downside to this has been both, practical and theoretical impediments. The
following statement by Chris Argyris sums up the problems which are
elaborated further:
“The change programs and practices we employ are full of inner
contradictions that cripple innovation, motivation, and drive. At the
same time, CEOs subtly undermine empowerment. Managers love
empowerment in theory, but the command-and-control model is what
they trust and know best. For their part, employees are often
ambivalent about empowerment - it is great as long as they are not
held personally accountable.”
Chris Argyris1

Scientific Management and its legacy


According to Mike Noon and Paul Blyton, “Taylor’s ideas have
made (and continue to make) a crucial impact on the thinking about job
design and the division of labour.”11, a fact that empowerment enthusiasts
have been trying to counter and conquer to change the basic mindsets that
dictate the accepted view of an organisation and its way of working. The
after-effects of Taylorist ideologies and Fordist concepts of applications are
still found in most of today’s management practices, the reasons being
attitudinal inertia and reluctance to accept an out-of-box approach
considering it to be too radical and trust in command-and control model.
This disinclination can further be attributed to the resilience of the
techniques of scientific management in explanation and logic in regards to
managerial level understanding11 in contrast to the ambiguities that the

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specifics of empowerment entail as identified by Jay Conger and Rabindra
Kanugo:
“Despite the recognized role of empowerment in management theory
and practice, our understanding of the construct is limited and often
confusing. For example, most management theorists have dealt with
empowerment as a set of managerial techniques and have not paid
sufficient attention to its nature or the processes underlying the
construct. This may reflect the pragmatic or practice orientation of
theorists, and the result may be an inadequate understanding of the
notion of empowerment and its theoretical rationale for related
practices.”
Conger and Kanugo6
This takes the discussion further to those existing contradictions and
misconceptions clouding empowerment concept.

Confusion with Empowerment Concepts


Empowerment is an ambitiously radical diversion from traditional and
evidently deep-rooted sense of management practices. It seems to propose
changes to the existing fundamental approaches in management on the
whole and in doing so, disconcerts the audience with vague descriptions of
its implications, scope and extent and also the ways of application. Most of
the empowerment enthusiasts hail empowerment as strong change
philosophy by elucidating its holistic benefits but what they fail to explain is
how these proposed changes affect the fundamentals of management
attitudes and methods to bring about these benefits. Reiterating from
Conger and Kanugo, the subject of empowerment has been dealt as a list
of directives to its users and much has not been done to unambiguously
communicate the way the intent of empowerment serves its purpose.
Moreover, most of the existing examples of practical approaches to
empowerment are seriously flawed because of the treatment of application
with a background of taylorist mentalities. There is no doubt that the idea,
however vague, has been communicated, but the subsequent follow up

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lacks analytical commitment6 that was seen in Taylor’s work with Scientific
Management. It is not wrong, with this piece of evidence, to say that most
of the empowerment jargon that exists out there covers its idea only in
words and labels using glossy language and does little towards its analysis
in practical contexts.

To put this simply, idea of empowerment requires answering a


number of conceptual and practical questions8. Some of them are:

• To what extent does job enrichment and enlargement affect the top
and middle management’s job description?
• How can the bequest of power down the hierarchy be promoted or
does it really require acquisition of power for those being
empowered?
• Can empowerment not entail loss of responsibility by some (usually
middle managers)?
• What is the scope of its implications? Is it the origin of autonomy or
simply an offer of increased say in management or just a choice
among the options laid out by management?

Most issues like these aren’t attended to as“ the burgeoning prescriptive or
celebratory literature on empowerment is replete with equivocation,
tautology and contradiction in equal measure about what ‘empowerment’ is,
for whom, to what extent, where and why empowerment should occur and
what else accompanies it.”8. The contrast between the portrayal of
empowerment as a new-age philosophy and the ambiguous nature of its
concepts, usually prescriptive, casts doubt on the much celebrated strength
of this philosophy to cause positive change.4 Thus, following Chris Argyris,
empowerment is after all “emperors’ new clothes.”1

Acceptance and Attitudinal Inertia


The extent of effect of internalisation of Taylorist and Fordist concepts
on the basic understanding of a simple organisational system, be it service
or product oriented, has in a way curtailed the progressive thought process

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necessary for realising new ways of managing organisations. From what
we know, there has always been a hierarchy, a method of doing things on
the job, a code of conduct, idea of where information or knowledge must or
should come from and who hold it, so on and so forth. These attitudinal
hurdles prevent absolute realisation of empowerment. Grassroots of
fundamentals cannot be affected unless this flawed conceptualisation of
organisations is corrected or adjusted to create space for worker centrality
to survive and develop within the system, promoting the system’s growth
too.

The attitudinal reluctance or inertia, so to say, is basically a problem


that can be understood from a psychological view point. The age old axiom
that humans do not welcome ‘change’ holds true in this regard. In most
practical problems brought out from experience or academic study, it was
clear that attitudinal inertia afflicted mid level implementers and acquirers of
empowerment.

Top management, either while keeping with the fad or sincerely,


implement empowerment that affects the organisation across its
hierarchical ranks. Major problems facing absolute organisational
conformation to empowerment principles are attitudes that encompass
conflict across hierarchical strata and plural professional affiliations, with
dearth of critical studies at this level of empowering issues being a
contributing factor4.
To actually point out some examples, one of the problems NHS faced
whilst implementation of empowerment in one of its hospitals was non-
conformist behavior of ward co-coordinators who withheld information
causing additional problems in the already crippled patient care. Similar
examples of non-conformist or hesitant behavior could be found in many
companies for example; a study undertaken by Colin Hales and Antonis
Klidas, investigating the reality of empowerment in 10 5-star hotels in
Amsterdam, highlighted how the” amenability of the concept to a variety of
interpretations” leads to the creation of “an ideological terrain on which the
conflict between senior and junior managers over attempts to reconstitute
managerial work is conducted.”8

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The employees on the other hand, the stars of the show called
empowerment or at least who are made to feel like one, are, as Chris
Argyris observed ambivalent. This is a natural result of unspoken
scepticism because of the much abused command-and control model that
binds employees to ‘them and us’ mentality. From employees’ view point,
this behaviour is quite logical because the main ideology of empowerment
is provision of power and an employee who had gotten used to being
controlled by his superiors in the first place, feels the rabbit hole getting
deeper when he is offered power and the accountability for it at the same
time. It is therefore, obvious to expect scepticism and mixed responses. In
all of this, the main premise of empowerment again suffers.

These are the very general issues that empowerment faces in its
implementation as an accepted management concept. As we delve deeper,
it is inevitable to realise presence of specific impediments both while
understanding and applying the concept and its general interpretations.
The solution lies in committed resolve and a set of underpinning guidelines
that provide direction to achieve attitudinal, organisational and motivational
conformation that sets the pace of empowerment as a philosophy of
beneficial change.

SETTING THE PACE


Solving the Empowerment paradox

It can, in all validity be argued that the concept of empowerment is


paradoxical in nature because while it speaks of allowing discretion to the
workforce, it is the management that is bringing about the change. Looking
beyond the contradictions of the paradox, previously constructed
arguments have established the imminent need to realise those resources
that present themselves in the form of an organisations’ workforce.
Organisational conformation to empowerment is the need of the hour and
one that requires a sense of commitment on the part of the managers,
because in order to overcome difficulties and promote empowerment within
their organisations, major conceptual restructuring needs to be first done at
management’s end.
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The problems mentioned earlier can be solved and thwarted by
application of certain self-control measures like
• Absolute avoidance of Taylorist and Fordist mentalities in speech as
well as in actions
• Clarifying the management’s understanding of empowerment to the
organisation and the level of commitment expected
• Removing conceptual and pragmatic difficulties that may be
encountered while promoting unity of purpose
Against a background of above mentioned underpinning measures, what
follows is a set of guidelines that are intended to aid managers in achieving
organisational conformation to empowerment.

Because of the existing structural setting of most organisations, the


initial set of guidelines will (1) reorganise separately, antecedent
management tendencies and workforce perception to overcome its
attitudinal inertia. There by, (2) a set of guidelines to affect employee and
employer disposition towards empowerment, and (3) organisational
conformation strategies and methods of promoting employee engagement
and unity will be elicited.

“Empowerment is a process of enhancing feelings of self-efficacy


among organizational members through the identification of
conditions that foster powerlessness and through their removal
by both formal organizational practices and informal techniques
of providing efficacy information.”
Conger and Kanugo6

Recognition

Empowerment, due to its basic nature cannot thrive in a climate of


powerlessness. Control over situations is a necessary prerequisite. The
need of recognition of structures and/or actions that (either knowingly or
unknowingly) foster powerlessness thus becomes mandatory antecedent
for empowerment strategies6. In most cases, these are intimately linked to
reluctance of top and middle managers in bequeathing control,
impoverished need for growth of employees due to lack of motivation

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and/or sceptical view of managerial actions. Following Conger and
Kanugo, managers should take the initiative and recognise:

• Organisation factors that


✔ Create or cause bureaucratic climate
✔ Result in poor/unclear communication
✔ Result in unnecessary resource centralisation
• Supervisory style that
✔ Is authoritarian
✔ De-motivating
✔ Uninformed
• Reward system that
✔ Ignores employee efforts towards innovation, competency
✔ Low level of incentive value
• Job structure that
✔ Lacks role clarity
✔ Unrealistic goals
✔ Offers little or no training
✔ Is overtly mechanical or rigidly structured
✔ Lacks meaningful tasks
✔ Limits contacts within the workforce and with senior
management
Extracted from Academy of Management review6

Corrective measures

The very first corrective measure that every company, irrespective of


its ultimate goal should apply is the ideology of transparency within the
organisation, in all its actions, words and dealings. Quite a natural outcome
to this will be increased employee trust in the management and improved
acceptance levels. Transparency is the act of unambiguous communication
of management’s goal; it’s expectation of its employees and substantiation
of commitment that employees should expect. The company policy while

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staying clear of capitalist ideologies of growth should encompass intentions
that help establish an environment that is replete with mutual trust and
encouragement of individual growth.

According to Frederick Herzberg, employee motivation can be greatly


affected by implementing positive psychological KITA, where in the need
for recurring external stimulation of employee engagement is obviated. In
his, Motivation-Hygiene theory9, he proposes 7 basic principles9 (Annexe1)
that help in ‘vertical job loading’ as opposed to horizontal job loading, to
build a self sustaining motivation mechanism for the workforce.

Annexure 1 shows these 7 principles that Herzberg proposed to


affect Job enrichment and inculcate self motivating characters in the
employees. The 7 principles can be shown to influence both, the level of
job satisfaction an employee experiences and his/her level of aspiration or
need of growth as these two experimentally can be shown to hold a sway
over motivation potential and employee ability to respond positively to
change7, that in turn affects workplace engagement, conducive
environment creation and ultimately realisation of workers as the centre
piece to overall company growth and development.

Sustaining the pace

Managers should know that empowerment is not a one-off


implementation strategy and needs constant supervision and periodic
appraisal thereafter. Maintaining the idea of worker centrality and its
importance to development through collective corrective measures
mentioned before, managers can promote and sustain empowerment. The
following directives are presented to help in empowerment appraisal,
development and sustenance within the organisation.

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• Improving awareness and removal of
✔ Factors that seem to enhance bureaucratic climate
✔ Systems that overtly impress employee dependence on
superiors
✔ Structures that limit discretion, freedom and fearlessness
✔ Job designs that fail to motivate
• Appraisal of
✔ Restructured tasks especially promoters of worker discretion
✔ Measures that enhance worker motivation
✔ Employee attitudes to identify those which are retrograde
✔ Deviations that recede intended outcomes

It is the consistency of commitment of managers and constant engagement


on the part of employees that can guarantee success of empowerment.

SUMMARY

Empowering people is now being perceived as a prerequisite to


organisational success and sustained growth in dynamic market
environments by drawing heavily upon human resource and integrating this
with all business processes. But, human resource which is central to the
remit of empowerment requires special focus for its sustained development
in order that, innovations being obtained from this resource are continuous
and progressive. It will be highly detrimental to consider empowerment as a
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tool to achieve organisational success only, since the picture such intent
paints is capitalist in nature. Only when management realises that
empowerment focuses not just on success of the company but also on
development of its workforce potential, can it generate a sustained
competitive edge in the market.

By its very nature, empowerment requires a coherent focus within the


organisation. Managers’ realisation of importance of workforce and
employees’ engagement through self motivation and commitment are
important factors that underpin the expectation for success via
empowerment. It is therefore the responsibility of management to initiate
conceptual restructuring of their company and shift the focus from
command-and control model towards participative and reflective methods.
In all of this, anything that vaguely resembles capitalist, taylorist or fordist
should be steered clear off.

There is no set rule or rigid compartmentalisation that dictates the


ways of achieving empowerment. However, the rules that run down in the
background of any empowerment inducing technique must be governed by
responsive and committed overall engagement, identification and removal
of bureaucratic mentalities and environment that is conducive to motivation.

ANNEXURE 1:
Extracted from F. Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene theory

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REFERENCES:

1. Argyris, C. (1998) ‘Empowerment: The Emperor’s new clothes’,


Harvard Business Review p.98.
2. Barbara K. (2007) ‘What every leader needs to know about followers’
Harvard Business Review p.86.
3. Beirne, M. (2006) Empowerment and Innovation: Managers, Principles
and Reflective Practice, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. p.1, 5, 21, 22.
4. Beirne, M. (1999) 'Managing to Empower? : A Healthy Review of
Resources and Constraints', European Management Journal, Vol 17, No 2,
p.219, 220.
5. Bower-Ferres, Susan (1975) ‘Loeb centre and its philosophy of
Nursing’, American Journal of Nursing, Vol 75, No 5, p.810, 811.
6. Conger J.A. and Kanugo R.N. (1988) ‘The Empowerment Process:
Integrating theory and Practice, The Academy of Management Review, Vol
13, No 3, p.501,503.
7. Hackman J.R, Pearce J.L and Oldham G. R. (1976) ‘Conditions under
which employees respond positively to Enriched work’, Journal of Applied
Psychology, Vol 61, No 4.
8. Hales, C. (2000) ‘Management and Empowerment Programmes’
Work, Employment and Society, Vol 14, p 501,503.
9. Herzberg, F. (2003) ‘One More Time: how do you motivate
employees? , Harvard Business Review, June, p. 8, 10.
10. Maslow A. H. (1998) ‘Abraham Maslow: the hierarchy of needs’
(1943), Corby: Institute of Management Innovation
11. Noon, M. and Blyton, P. (1997) The Realities of Work, MacMillan:
London, p.146-7.

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