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Received April 1997 Revised October 1997 Accepted October 1997

Empowerment: theory and practice
Adrian Wilkinson
School of Management, UMIST, Manchester, UK
Introduction In recent years, the term empowerment has become part of everyday management language (Collins, 1994; Cunningham et al., 1996; Hennestad, 1998; Wilkinson, 1998). It has also been associated with popular management movements of the times such as human resource management (HRM) and total quality management (TQM). Empowerment is regarded as providing a solution to the age-old problem of Taylorised and bureaucratic workplaces where creativity is stifled and workers become alienated, showing discontent through individual or collective means. There are a number of problems with the existing prescriptive literature on empowerment. First, the term is used very loosely and it is not always clear if we are comparing like with like. Second, it is rarely located in a historical context: empowerment is seen as an entirely new phenomenon. Third, there is little detailed discussion of the issues likely to arise when implementing empowerment or the conditions which are necessary for such an approach to be successful. It is assumed that employers will simply welcome the new approach, seeing it as beneficial to them and the organisation. The literature also takes a universalistic approach, regarding empowerment as appropriate to all organisations in all circumstances. Fourth, the literature trivialises the conflict that exists with organisations and ignores the context within which empowerment takes place (Marchington, 1995). In this paper we examine the roots of empowerment, examine why it came into prominence in recent years, suggest a classification of empowerment, and discuss the evidence as to its impact. The term “empowerment” is generally used to refer to a form of employee involvement initiative which was widespread from the 1980s and focused on task-based involvement and attitudinal change. Unlike industrial democracy there is no notion of workers having a right to a say: it is employers who decide whether and how to empower employees. While there is a wide range of programmes and initiatives which are titled empowerment and they vary as to the extent of power which employees actually exercise, most are purposefully designed not to give workers a very significant role in decision making but rather to secure an enhanced employee contribution to the organization. Empowerment takes place within the context of a strict management agenda.
A version of this article will appear in Poole, M. (Ed.), IEBM Handbook of Human Resource Management, to be published by International Thomson Publishing in 1998.

Personnel Review, Vol. 27 No. 1, 1998, pp. 40-56, © MCB University Press, 0048-3486

Empowerment schemes tend to be direct and based on individuals or small groups (usually the work group), a clear contrast with industrial democracy and participative schemes such as consultative committees which are collectivist and representative in nature. Empowerment in context Taking a historical perspective, innovations at work group level can be seen as long-standing. Prior to the industrial revolution, goods were made by craftsmen who had responsibility for the entire process. Up to the turn of the century, automobiles were constructed by skilled craftsmen who planned production, solved design problems and constructed the car as a unit (Gartman, 1978, p. 195). In the 1920s the ideas of F.W. Taylor, the father of scientific management, were influential in getting management to break jobs down into small tasks and decide the best method of carrying out each task using work study methods. Under this regime, workers had little discretion with conception separate from execution, and brainpower was to be centred with management. The system was based on worker compliance. While scientific management was very successful in terms of boosting productivity, there was concern over the alienation of workers reflected in high labour turnover, absenteeism and conflict. The work of Elton Mayo and the Human Relations School criticised Taylorism and suggested that involving workers had strong business as well as moral benefits. Workers could be self-motivated and carry out good work without close supervision (Rose, 1978). With many problems apparent with traditional forms of work organisation there has been continuing interest in getting workers more involved, although the type of initiative fashionable has waxed and waned over time. In the 1960s job enrichment was established as an alternative work paradigm, the aim being to provide meaningful work for employees with some degree of control and feedback on performance (Buchanan, 1979). In short intrinsic motivation was seen as critical to job satisfaction and jobs were to be enriched by reintegrating maintenance tasks and providing some decision-making opportunities. Walton (1985) lists firms such as General Motors, Proctor & Gamble and Mars as leaders in work innovation in the USA during this time. In the 1970s there was greater interest in industrial democracy which emphasised workers’ rights to participate, and legislative backing for worker directives in much of Western Europe (excluding the UK) provided impetus for such structures. By the 1980s new forms of participation were developed less concerned with the concept of joint negotiation and with much greater emphasis on employee involvement such as quality circles, team briefing and profit sharing as part of a wider set of reforms in working practices. The key point about these schemes is that they did not challenge management prerogative (Ackers et al., 1992; Marchington et al., 1992). It was the late 1980s which saw empowerment emerge in its modern form. While earlier involvement initiatives may have been empowering, empowerment needs to be seen in a particular business and political context.

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The rhetoric of enterprise which reflected the shift to the political right in Western Europe and the USA underpinned the new management approach (Legge, 1995). The discourse of empowerment fitted with notions of enterprise culture with individuals seen as entrepreneurs taking destiny into their own hands no longer encumbered by bureaucratic rules and union obstruction. Such ideas were advocated by the influential popular management writers of this period, including Peters (1989) and Schonberger (1990) whose ideas popularised approaches such as TQM and HRM. Peters (“involve everyone in everything; leading by empowering people”) and Schonberger (“we want take charge employees”) both exhorted organisations to empower staff as mass production in a predictable environment was no longer seen as the norm. A flood of books advocating empowerment began to appear (Byman, 1991; Foy, 1994). In retrospect it could be argued that Peters and Waterman’s much derided bestselling book, In Search of Excellence, published in 1982, was influential in helping lay the foundations for the modern empowerment movement. While many may not have read the book, their perceived wisdom and buzzwords became fully dispersed within management circles. A central message was the need to move away from the hard rationalist models driven by accountants and engineers to a more simple intuitive style of management. “Productivity through people”, “autonomy and entrepreneurship” summed up the new philosophy which when combined with “the customer is king” provided the context for current empowerment ideas. The message was that successful organisations focused on managing culture. Implicit in this analysis was the view that managers could unleash the talents of individuals by dismantling organisational bureaucracy. Managers were exhorted to trust and involve employees. Different forms of control were demanded. “Simultaneous loosetight properties” referred to control through shared values (customer service, etc.) with employees having greater discretion with regard to how they carried out their jobs to meet these core corporate values. By the late 1980s business thinking had become attracted by the notion of new modes of managing. It was argued that markets were now more competitive (indeed turbulent and chaotic) partly owing to the globalisation of competition and liberalisation by governments, and customers were becoming more demanding in terms of choice, quality, design and service. In the private sector organisations were now targeting their products at niche markets and attempting to respond swiftly to customer demands rather than selling massproduced goods in stable markets. Nor was the public sector immune from such pressures as privatisation and commercialisation which increased pressure on them to meet various performance criteria. As a result the emphasis changed from utilising economies of scale to more flexible, innovative and responsive organisations. This shift was variously referred to as post-Fordism, flexible specialisation and lean production. The new management paradigm emphasised by writers such as Drucker (1988) and Kanter (1989) include debureaucratisation (end of hierarchy and prescriptive rules), and delayering, de-

centralisation and the utilisation of project-based teams as part of a movement towards a new knowledge-based organisation. The new approach carried implications for people management and employers were urged to move away from an approach based on compliance, hierarchical authority and limited employee discretion to one where there was greater emphasis on high trust relations, teamworking and empowerment, with calls for employee commitment and the utilisation of workforce expertise (Hyman and Mason, 1995; Walton, 1985). Furthermore, sectoral and labour market changes shifted the balance of power to employers so as to facilitate the introduction of empowerment and other employee involvement mechanisms, which changed work relationships on employers’ terms. Whereas the Scandinavian experiments were born of a political and economic context with a strong labour movement and supportive government, the context of empowerment was quite different. The quality movement was also influential during this period. While its principles had been developed by Japanese companies in the late 1950s and 1960s, interest in the West peaked in the 1980s, and there appeared to be a strong message of empowerment (Wilkinson et al., 1992). Under TQM, continuous improvement is undertaken by those involved in a process and this introduces elements of bottom-up issue identification and problem solving. As a result TQM may empower employees by delegating functions that were previously the preserve of more senior organisational members and as a result institutionalise participation on a permanent basis (Hill, 1991, p. 541). Thus supervisory roles are taken over by workers particularly in relation to quality control. Operators could use their tacit knowledge of work processes to achieve substantially higher levels of quality, with the task of management to create the conditions which would facilitate such efforts. However, operators’ activity would be confined to diagnosing improvements in their own work, not necessarily being able to implement these themselves unless the organisation had also moved towards semi-autonomous working that combined authority with the responsibility for work. Middle managers become facilitators, encouraging participation, teamwork and the delegation of responsibility and accountability and this helps foster pride, job satisfaction, and better work. The practice of continuous improvement is seen as increasing employee involvement in decision making, although there is little discussion as to whether it is relatively low grade task-centred involvement or a more significant form of participation and shared decision making. In practice there is a basic ambiguity in TQM in that, while employers seek the commitment and empowerment of their employees, increased control over the work process is a cornerstone of TQM (Hill and Wilkinson, 1995, pp. 14-16). There is also a profoundly negative force which has driven the empowerment initiatives. In the 1980s and 1990s rationalisation and downsizing were very much the order of the day. In this context empowerment became a business necessity as the destaffed and delayered organisation could no longer function as before. In this set of circumstances, empowerment was inevitable as tasks

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had to be allocated to the survivors in the new organisation. Thus talk of enrichment and job satisfaction were very much secondary to simply getting the job done. The business process re-engineering movement reflected these types of considerations. The roots of empowerment It is easy to assume empowerment is simply a new phenomenon in that standard texts on involvement and participation make scant reference to the term (see for example, Brannen, 1983; Marchington, 1992; Poole, 1986). Thus many accounts write as if empowerment is entirely a product of the times and do not see it in a historical context. However, one could argue that, although empowerment in its current form reflects recent developments, the basis and ideas underlying it go much deeper. Empowerment can be seen in many respects as a rejection of the traditional classical model of management associated with Taylor and Ford where standardised products were made through economies of scale and the division of labour, and workers carried out fragmented and repetitive jobs. Economic man was seen as accepting a tradeoff of high wages (extrinsic motivation) for poor quality of working life. Two broad sets of arguments have been used to justify the utilisation of empowerment. First, democratic humanism which is usually seen as a response to the excesses of scientific management and problems of alienation. Associated with enlightened managers, this view of human nature can be seen in the work of McGregor and his Theory X and Theory Y constructs. While Theory X assumes employees dislike work and shirk responsibility and are motivated purely by financial considerations, Theory Y takes a more positive view of human nature, assuming employees would prefer to exercise self-control and contribute to the organisation so as to meet their needs for self-actualisation. These sets of assumptions were also reflected in the work of humanist psychologists such as Maslow with his model of the hierarchy of needs, and also Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory (Watson, 1995). Participation would satisfy human growth needs of self-actualisation and fulfilment and through this mechanism increase motivation and performance. The socio-technical systems school stressed the need to design technical and social components alongside each other to optimise the two and their influential study of coalmining in Britain showed how work could be re-designed within the existing technical basis so as to retain traditional features such as skill variety and a degree of autonomy (Trist et al., 1963). In the 1970s the quality of working life (QWL) movement consolidated and developed these ideas and put them into practice, most famously in the Swedish car plants such as Volvo at Kalmar. Furthermore it has been argued that developments in the broader political and social environment including more educated workers has led to a higher level of expectation concerning quality of working life (Cotton, 1993). Second, there is an economic case for empowerment which is essentially pragmatic. It is assumed first that workers have the opportunity to contribute to organisational success and as they are closer to the work situation they may

be able to suggest improvements which management would be unable to by virtue of their position in the hierarchy. Empowerment would also increase job satisfaction and reduce turnover as workers feel more committed to organisational goals. In addition, as workers are empowered this reduces the need for complex and indeed dysfunctional systems of control, hence increasing efficiency. In the 1980s the new flexible organisation paradigm reinforced such arguments. The move to customised products with flexible specialisation (Piore and Sabel, 1983) and flatter and leaner structures was seen as the new route to competitive advantage and this meant increasing focus on labour as a resource not just a cost. Furthermore, jobs were seen as far more complex than in the days of scientific management and change much quicker. It was seen as vital to achieve greater flexibility through the use of people. Rather than trying to control employees, they should be given discretion to provide better service and achieve a higher standard of work. The argument emphasised the need for faster decisions in a changing marketplace with employees closest to the customer/product best placed to make decisions concerning related issues. All these theories share a common assumption that workers are an untapped resource with knowledge and experience and an interest in becoming involved which can be released by employers providing opportunities and structures for their involvement. It is also assumed that participative decision making is likely to lead to job satisfaction and better quality decisions and that gains are available both to employers (increased efficiency) and workers (job satisfaction), in short an everyone wins scenario. Classifying empowerment A central problem in this field is that the term empowerment has been used very loosely by practitioners and indeed academics. At its simplest, empowerment would commonsensically be associated with the redistribution of power, but in practice empowerment is usually seen as a form of employee involvement, designed by management and intended to generate commitment and enhance employee contributions to the organisation. While some forms of employee involvement may provide employees with new channels through which their influence is enhanced, employee involvement does not involve any de jure sharing of authority or power. With employee involvement, the onus is on employers to involve employees or give employees the opportunity to be involved. Empowerment in the context of its usage in recent years can be seen as reflecting this approach. It is individualist rather than collectivist in its orientation, i.e. empowerment is based on individual workers or work groups but not on larger groups such as trade unions. It encompasses direct involvement in work practices rather than indirect. Financial participation and representative participation were not part of the agenda, rendering it distinct from other forms of employee involvement, employee participation and industrial democracy. Thus a distinction could be made between empowerment initiatives as defined above and initiatives which may empower (the latter including industrial democracy).

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The new rhetoric is significant. The term is associated with an upbeat view of management and the vague but positive associations make the appeal immediate and extensive. But one needs to question who is empowering whom and why, as well as examining to whom do the benefits (if any) belong? No doubt the empowerment movement appropriates language from wider political movements – feminism, and the ecology movement where empowerment is seen as a positive force, but a key difference is that these movements are rooted in the oppressed, i.e. helping people to help themselves, whereas the empowerment movement is driven by those in power, i.e. helping managers to manage the organisation (Hennestad, 1998). Empowerment can be seen as a flexible and even elastic term (Cunningham et al., 1996; Lashley, 1997). It clearly fits within the voluntarist tradition which left managers and workers (in practice reflecting power structures, usually the former) to decide on a suitable approach for the organisation. Empowerment can also be seen as different from the 1970s QWL movement which emphasised labour issues such as job satisfaction, absenteeism and labour turnover. Indeed to some extent the 1970s participative movement had a negative aim: to keep employers quiescent, i.e. make them conform to the contract (Ramsay, 1977) rather than the more recent manifestation where a greater (i.e. beyond contract) commitment is sought. In contrast empowerment emphasises more direct business considerations, such as quality, flexibility and productivity. It is management who empowers employees and the initiatives have tended to cover direct workforce involvement over a relatively small number of issues usually connected with the production process or service delivery, with the rationale that highly committed and empowered staff were more likely to engage in a beyond contract effort, i.e. beyond the normal call of duty. There has tended to be little union negotiation concerning the principle of the initiative (an empowerment paradox) with design and planning excluding union involvement. In practice, however, issues arising out of the implementation of empowerment often become industrial relations matters. For example job enlargement can threaten traditional demarcation lines as well as raise remuneration issues. What the quantitative growth of empowerment initiatives means for empowerment in practice is another issue. There is a tendency in the existing literature to lump together all the various forms of empowerment (Lashley, 1997). No categorisation scheme for empowerment is entirely satisfactory as the boundaries between different types are not clear and much depends on the definition adopted. With empowerment not existing as a single unified entity, it can cover a very wide range of schemes, which in turn may involve a variety of diverse management motivations. However, they are united by sharing a common assumption that employees’ and employers’ interests are inextricably connected. They can range from the mechanistic (i.e. structural change) to the more organic (concerned with attitudes/culture). However, taking account of these notes of caution we can identify five main types, namely information

sharing, upward problem solving, task autonomy, attitudinal shaping, and selfmanagement. Information sharing For employers to be empowered, information is a central component. There has been a great deal of interest in recent years in management increasing downward communication to employees typically via newsletters, the management chain or team briefing, which communicates organisational goals and the business position of the organisation to win hearts and minds. The logic here is that employees will be more understanding of the reasons for business decisions and as a result more committed to the organisation’s action. Moreover, communication is direct to the workforce rather than being mediated by employee representation or trade unions. Thus critics have argued that such schemes incorporate workers and/or by-pass trade unions and is designed not to provide better information to empower workers but convince them of the logic of management action and hence reduce the scope for genuine empowerment, i.e. the opportunity to influence or change decisions. In short, it may be a form of pseudo-participation (Pateman, 1970) with a move away from “you will do this” to “this is why you will do this” (Wilkinson et al., 1993, p. 28). It is also seen as important that employees should have the opportunity to express their views and grievances openly and independently through a form of upward communication, rather than being able to raise only task-related problems. Of course voice could be achieved through trade union organisation and collective bargaining, through formally established grievance and disputes procedures but empowerment tends to favour individual action through speakup schemes which offer employees protection if their complaints are not heard sympathetically. Employees may also be asked to collect information outside their immediate work group, perhaps through cross-functional teams, as issues here may impact on their work. This introduces a horizontal communication dimension. It is usually accompanied by a problem-solving aspect as well (see below). Upward problem solving Again there are various dimensions to this form of empowerment. Within the existing job this may involve informing management of problems and letting them deal with them. A typical example in manufacturing would be workers having the ability to halt the line because of production problems or defective material. In services employees may be able to make customer-related decisions (e.g. replacing defective products). In short, there may be greater autonomy and responsibility at the point of production or service delivery. Outside the job basic work process itself is suggestion involvement (Bowen and Lawler, 1992), where workers make suggestions but management decide whether to act on these, or more significant where workers have some autonomy through quality circles/groups/teams, addressing problems and in some cases implementing

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improvements themselves. This reflects Morton’s (1994) idea that workers have two jobs: one is to carry out designated tasks and the other is to search for improvements. Task autonomy At its most basic level this may mean removing inspectors from the production line as workers take on wider responsibility, or it may involve the more significant restructuring of work units into cells (often around product flows) teams or the creation of semi-autonomous work groups now commonly referred to as teamworking or self-managing teams. This differs from job rotation, enlargement and enrichment in that the work group itself decides details of production and work group norms to a much larger extent than the former jobrestructuring schemes. Such teams can have autonomy, concerning task allocation and scheduling, monitoring of attendance, health and safety issues, the flow and pace of production and can also be responsible for setting improvement targets (Wall and Martin, 1987). Teams can also have responsibility for the recruitment and training of temporary staff as well as controlling overtime levels. Developing a cell-base team structure is seen as helping communication, acceptance of change, and through peer pressure reduces the need for tight supervision and other forms of external control. This then facilitates delayering. Such groups can have what psychologists term skill discretion (solving problems with the knowledge of the group) and means discretion (choice in organising the means and tools of work) (Cooper, 1973), but are still working within a structure determined by senior management and remain focused on operational rather than strategic issues. Attitudinal shaping This sees empowerment as a psychological process and is often seen in the service industry (Jones et al., 1997). There may be no change in work or organisational structure but employees are trained/educated to feel empowered (a state of mind) and play a more confident role in their interaction with the customer. Internalisation of the new values is seen as the key to new behaviour. Such initiatives have been criticised as “smile campaigns” with critics arguing that the end result is a better apology than improved service. Indeed there is some research that suggests that changing attitudes through education and programmatic change is to misunderstand the process of change. It is changed behaviour that leads to changed attitudes rather than the reverse. What matters is how management organise work so as to ensure new responsibilities, relationships and roles, which in turn forces changed behaviour (Beer et al., 1990). Self-management This tends to be fairly rare in any real sense. Clearly self-managing work groups are a limited form of this approach, but are constrained by working within certain limits set by senior management (e.g. self-managing in relation to

a set of work tasks). Ideally self-management should involve divisions between managers and workers being eroded and decisions, rules and executive authority no longer set by the few for the many (Semler, 1989). Others have referred to high involvement (Bowen and Lawler, 1992) where business information is shared and employees have participation in wider business decisions. Clearly these types may overlap as many initiatives incorporate several of these dimensions. For example, information is important to empowerment in general and not just as a separate form. Similarly, a change in attitude and selfefficacy is seen by some writers as at the core of any form of empowerment (Conger and Kanungo, 1988). Discussion There has been considerable criticism of the transformation thesis implying a shift from Fordism to Post-Fordism. It has been pointed out that the pursuit of flexibility has not led to widespread multiskilling and indeed reflects sectoral change and opportunism rather than strategic choice (Legge, 1995). Lean production as implemented has strong elements of continuity with Taylorism. Nor have high trust relations appeared to be any more widespread than in previous times, with commitment largely calculative. Thus the rosy picture of an everyone wins scenario is hard to reconcile with much of what is reported to have been happening in the real world where downsizing, work intensification and career truncation appear to have been prevalent. Effectiveness can be examined from a number of perspectives, and much depends on how one sees management motivation for the introduction of such initiatives. While there has been much discussion of empowerment from a humanist perspective, there is no doubt that in the 1980s and 1990s management have regarded business considerations as the primary force behind empowerment. Thus the empowerment agenda of the 1980s and 1990s is much more pragmatic and business-oriented than the QWL movement of the 1970s. Furthermore, management have defined the redistribution of power in very narrow terms. The degree of participation offered by empowerment is strictly within an agenda set by management and it tends not to extend to significant power sharing or participation in higher level strategic decisions such as product and investment plans. It tends to be within systems rather than over systems. It is also true to say that radical forms of empowerment are not on the current empowerment agenda. While there have been business benefits arising from empowerment, it is often difficult to disentangle the contribution of empowerment, given that it is typically part of a wider organisational change process (TQM, BPR, etc.) with other changes such as new payment systems and new technology often part of the package. In terms of whether it leads to greater worker influence the answer appears to be yes but within heavily constrained terms (Edwards et al., 1997; Rees, 1996; Wilkinson et al., 1997a; 1997b).

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The rhetoric of senior management, and the names given to their empowerment initiatives, sound superficially similar when comparing organisations. Research suggests the need to move away from any simplistic or unilinear conceptions of empowerment (Lashley, 1997). Not only is it the case that varying types of empowerment carry different meanings, but also techniques with the same name, structure and processes may be experienced in very different fashions by different workforces. As a result empowerment initiatives cannot be analysed in isolation from the other organisation policies that impact on the employment relationship. In particular, attention must be directed towards the work organisation, the nature of the workforce, existing technology and business strategy, and whether initiatives are designed to create the climate in which changes in these areas can be introduced or whether they are merely bolted-on in a context where wider changes are already under way. While the catalyst for the introduction empowerment initiatives may have been the same at the most general level, i.e. intensifying competitive pressure, the extent of these pressures may differ. In one organisation empowerment may be part of a wider move to a more progressive and open style of management, while in another management may be forced towards changes in work organisation and empowerment as part of an immediate and desperate struggle to survive, with increased intensification and management by stress (Parker and Slaughter, 1993) the outcome, and workers putting up with the new regime because of a fear of dismissal. In short one needs to analyse the real terrain on which the empowerment initiative is operationalised. However, the credibility and acceptance of any initiative is partly governed by the management’s treatment of the workforce. Studies point to the importance of supporting changes in human resource policy such as moves towards single status in producing a conception among the workforce of an open management style and helping to produce a more positive evaluation of management. Research on high performance work teams which encompass empowerment identifies the context within which the teams operated as critical to their success. Management had a clear vision of how the teams fitted in with the broader business strategy and this was shared with all employees. Moreover, the teams were supported by a whole raft of other initiatives such as an open management style, open plan layout, flexitime and the removal of clocking and a payment system based on skills acquisition (Buchanan, 1994). Thus empowerment needs to be nurtured by the whole work environment within which it operates. Teamworking is unlikely, for example, to be very successful with an individualised payment system which cuts across the group ideal. While there is little evidence that traditional distrust is eliminated by empowerment there may be greater loyalty within the reconstructed workgroups which may equally serve management goals. Similarly, best practice theory implies that inter-related elements produced benefits not a piecemeal approach. Key human resource practices included empowerment but also identified training, rigorous selection, employee ownership and performance-related reward as critical success factors (Pfeffer, 1994).

Research is often polarised into those who report greater work effort and more demanding jobs and those who report more job satisfaction, but there is evidence of both occurring simultaneously. Thus work could be more satisfying with increased discretion over the work process but demands may also be more explicit and rigorous. While traditional external controls such as supervisory attention may have been eradicated, sophisticated measurement systems (technical control) monitor the performance of individuals and teams and peer pressure (social control) also serves management’s objectives. From this perspective empowerment is more significant as ideology than as practice (Sewell and Wilkinson, 1992). It is important to see empowerment in a wider context and reiterate that empowerment as defined by employers is largely task-based and aimed at operational issues. It is taken for granted in much of the prescriptive literature that employees will welcome and indeed be committed to the new approach. Indeed there is evidence that workers welcome the removal of irritants (e.g. close supervision) and welcome the opportunity to address problems at source as well as the ability to decide work allocation. However, there is also evidence that employees are not sufficiently trained for empowerment in the West especially where empowerment is a result of downsizing. Empowerment becomes abandonment (Adler, 1993). In contrast in Japan the success of job enrichment has been attributed to newly hired workers being trained to do all the jobs on the line (a process taking six to 12 months), so they understand the entire process and are better able to identify problems (Garvin, 1988). Another common problem is that the decision-making process is not clear or developed, so that workers suggest ideas but management are unable to respond adequately to these. These problems are partly the result of the need to adapt to new production techniques and downsizing rather than enhancing empowerment per se. In other words empowerment is not without costs both in terms of establishing a new approach to management (involving training costs, costs of new reward and information systems) and in its operation (involving issues of integration, consistency and unintended consequences) (Lawler, 1996). Thus the new paradigm of work organisation remains an ideal, with elements adopted but in an ad hoc piecemeal manner. Some commentators have suggested that employees’ empowerment is making someone else take the risk and responsibility (Sisson, 1994, p. 15) previously held by others without a commensurate improvement in their own terms and conditions. However, the evidence indicates that employees are not cultural dopes (Hill, 1995, p. 50) and do not simply buy into rhetoric in an unconditional way. Their support is dependent on trust in management and the perceived benefits to themselves. Employees interpret, evaluate and (re)act towards managerial initiatives, and in its way serve to audit in their own way the viability of managerial initiatives. Thus, while workers’ representatives may be becoming enmeshed in a management discourse which makes it difficult for them to challenge any management strategy which is grounded in business logic, in reality they may oppose the initiative implemented and indeed may subvert

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management goals (Roberts and Wilkinson, 1991). Thus it could be argued that, although management try to limit empowerment, employees themselves may see the discourse as a resource in their struggles with management to bring managers into line with workforce expectations (Rosenthal et al., 1997) and indeed may question the extent to which they are treated and rewarded in the organisation as a whole, and the extent to which they participate in key business decisions and hence construct their own agenda (Wilkinson et al., 1997a). Because a passive view of the workforce is often taken, the potential variability of understanding of individual initiatives consequent on diversity of industrial sectors is often overlooked. Thus, for example in the services sector, moves towards empowerment may be seen by individual workforces as routine in the context of other firms already providing such schemes; in manufacturing the situations may be very different. Indeed the differences between the sectors suggest that the views expressed by the workforce towards empowerment initiatives is not just a matter of degree; rather, the specific nature of employment relationships in the different sectors serves to indicate whether or not such initiatives will involve immediate questions about the frontier of control. The importance of such initiatives lies in the context of the translation of their supposed formal properties within the real terrain of the organisation and workplace (Roberts and Wilkinson, 1991, pp. 408-09). Such a perspective helps us to understand whether empowerment erodes other forms of involvement or participation. By restructuring work responsibilities and making the team central to the workplace, as well as encouraging employees to identify with managerial objectives, it can marginalise unions and in some cases is clearly intended to do so. From a business perspective a concern in recent years is the implication in terms of a loss of management control. An individual acting alone brought down a British Bank, Barings, and in other organisations such as Sears Roebuck, embarrassing headlines resulted from employees using their initiative and subverting control mechanisms (Simons, 1995). The prescriptive empowerment literature suggests that the role of middle managers and supervisors changes from holders of expert power to facilitators (or coaches). However, removal of expert power is often perceived as a significant threat and participative management is seen as a burden to many middle managers and it is not surprising that they do not universally welcome it (Denham et al., 1997; Marchington et al., 1992). Their sense of anxiety is exacerbated by fears of job loss as levels in the hierarchy may be reduced as part of wider changes, as well as possible reduction in status and increasing workload (Klein, 1984). Moreover some see moves towards employee empowerment as soft management removing their authority over subordinates. However, research suggests that opposition may owe more to the fact that they were not provided with the resources required, were not sufficiently trained or were not evaluated on this in terms of performance appraisal and therefore did not see it as of much importance (Marchington et al., 1992) and that the problem

relates to systems and structures rather than the personnel of middle management (Edwards et al., 1997). In other cases middle managers may feel that they themselves gain influence over decisions taken elsewhere in the organisation that affect their work. Some may also feel that it gives them a chance to show their initiative and so increase their career prospects despite losing a degree of functional expert power. In practice empowerment can be seen as depending contingently on other factors. For lower level employees, empowerment in organisations with more flexibly specialised processes, which rely on employee skill, discretion and organisational capabilities, is more likely to be associated with more influence over decisions than in organisations where there are routinised and standardised processes that are capable of being tightly controlled from above and where there is a tradition of such control. Empowerment in terms of identifying and solving problems can be found in the latter environment, as was evident at the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) – GM – Toyota joint venture in California, a Taylorised auto plant, but the scope for radical empowerment appears to be limited (Adler, 1993). There is also clearly a paradox in the empowerment process in that, while workers may be empowered to improve a process, once that change has been made it is standardised and hence constraining. Conclusion Empowerment has arisen from the employee involvement initiatives of the 1980s and has been conceived in an era where notions of industrial democracy were seen as old-fashioned. Empowerment has largely been aimed at shopfloor workers with the twin goals of increasing productivity and commitment to employers’ goals. While there has developed a variety of forms of empowerment they share a common basis in being managerially driven and hence within an agenda which allows for largely task-based empowerment. However, it needs to be recognised that empowerment has different forms and should be analysed in the context of broader organisational practice. The importance of these initiatives is in the context of the translation of their supposedly formal properties within the real terrain of the workplace. Empowerment may not in practice dilute overall management control: rather it can reconstitute the nature of such control. This does not mean that empowerment is without benefits to employees. Nor while these benefits may be limited should they be dismissed as simply small beer. A pragmatic approach needs to be taken. As Pfeffer (1994, p. 206) suggests with one should compare programmes not with some ideal but with the situation that would exist in their absence. In other words, just because a programme does not solve every problem or move the organisation all the way, particularly initially, to where it wants and needs to be does not mean that it is a failure. A programme fails when it produces either no sustained change or else change that is dysfunctional and ineffective. Some remediation of problems in managing the employment relation is certainly better than nothing at all. Research should

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move to examining the conditions under which empowerment is most effective and employee commitment to such schemes is enhanced.
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