Empowerment is a concept that gained immense popularity in the 1990s, and looks set to continue as a popular organisational initiative in the twenty-first century. It is a managerial ideology in its own right as well as being used with other initiatives and strategies such as BPR, TQM and the learning organisation. It is strongly associated with culture change initiatives, delayering and restructuring, and usually involves devolving power and responsibilities to teams at workplace or customer level (Arkin, 1995).
Various one-dimensional definitions of empowerment have emanated from the practitioner literature. Typical of this view is Cook and Macauley’s (1997) definition of empowerment as Its all-embracing nature skirts over issues of how employees use their abilities, and whether there are boundaries to responsibilities, the degree and type of power employees enjoy, power relations between employee, managers, individuals, teams, customers and the context of empowerment.
Both Wilkinson (1998) and Lashley (1997) have commented that empowerment is influenced by historical, economic, social and political factors, and in attempting a definition the context in which it is practised must be considered. Wilkinson (1998) defines empowerment as a managerially led initiative:
Empowerment is thus a managerially controlled phenomenon operating at a workbased rather than a strategic level within the organisation. Honold (1997) implicitly acknowledges this by seeing empowerment as ‘control of one’s work, autonomy on the job, variations of teamwork, and pay systems that link pay with performance’. She further divides empowerment into five groupings: leadership, the individual empowered state, collaborative work, structural or procedural change, and the multidimensional perspective that encompasses the other four categories.
In Honold’s first category the leader must set the context and cultural climate for the implementation of empowerment schemes. If by implication power is to be delegated then employees need the requisite training, development and support mechanisms and processes (such as team-building) to enable this to happen. As an initiative this conforms strongly to Wilkinson’s (1998) concept of empowerment – that is, being managerially led.
Honold (1997) reminds us ‘that if power is not taken by those it is bestowed upon then, there is no empowerment’. In other words, individual employees must feel that it is a worthwhile process for them, for example the satisfaction of gaining influence over events. Menon (1995) surveyed 311 employees in a company and found that greater job autonomy and meaningfulness of the job led to greater perceived control and greater empowerment. He found that the greater the empowerment the greater was the motivation to work among employees. This also led to less job stress and increased employee commitment to organisational goals.
The individual usually has to work with others, and the element of empowerment combining collaborative efforts has to be acknowledged, such as via quality circles or teamworking measures. This means developing the ability of employees to work together and cooperate, and using this sharing process to empower themselves further (Rothstein, 1995).
This is concerned with the nuts and bolts of the empowerment process, associated for example with TQM systems. Ward (1993: 4) believes that such systems have three crucial components:
Such goals can be achieved only by improving internal and external organisational communications. The use of electronic channels such as e-mail, Internet and intranet systems has important ramifications for the effective operations of such systems.
Honold’s (1997: 206) final category shows that one approach is insufficient for empowerment to be effective. Others believe that combining education, leading, mentoring and supporting, providing and structuring is more likely to enable empowerment systems to be successful. Human resource systems should also be fully supportive of these components, providing a contextual framework within which empowerment systems are able to operate. This means linking the empowerment process to the vision, goals and aims of the organisation, through HRD, reward systems and employee relations systems combined with adequate feedback measures.
outlines the proclaimed benefits of empowerment for individual employees and for the organisation.
It can be deduced from this table that the benefits to the organisation outweigh those to the staff. However, before embarking on a critique of empowerment it would be apposite to see how it fits into HRM systems as a whole.
Benefits of empowerment to the individual and the organisation
Claydon and Doyle (1996) distinguish between forms of empowerment in ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ HRM systems. The ‘soft’ aspect can ‘provide enhanced opportunities for involvement in decision making’ and ‘employees will gain those feelings of control, personal efficacy and self-determination which constitute the state of being empowered’. They also point out a second but extremely important aspect of the ‘soft’ system, in that empowerment connects with organisational learning.
‘More open communication, shared problem-solving geared to continuous improvement, and a related willingness to expose existing organisational arrangements to critical scrutiny imply more democratic, less authoritarian and bureaucratic work relations’. Empowering employees also means that managers lose some control, and must learn to accommodate a more questioning and risk-taking workforce, a problem of which many empowerment schemes fall foul (Arkin, 1995).
The ‘hard’ aspect of empowerment signifies the exercise of a sense of responsibility, and implies elements of monitoring and accountability: it therefore poses contradictions in its implementation and practice. These elements of ‘responsible autonomy’ are overseen by forms of surveillance via set objectives, customer reports, the policing by fellow members of autonomous work teams, and other controls.
‘Empowerment [like BPR, see below] is also closely linked to organisational restructuring, job cuts and moves towards increasingly fragmented and unstable and contingent employment relationships’ (Claydon and Doyle, 1996: 4). Here we see some of the contradictions inherent in capitalist enterprise and therefore in processes such as empowerment, BPR and TQM, which are related to HRM issues.
Is it possible to gain commitment when employees perceive themselves as being merely disposable units of production? These and other controversial questions will continue to exercise the minds of both practitioners and academics in the continual search for congruence between the aims of companies, employees and society.
Writers cited in the preceding text have already implied considerable criticism of the empowerment movement: its imprecise definitions; the fact that it remains, for all its good intentions, a managerial tool to gain employee compliance; and the fact that empowerment as such is restricted to workplace issues, allowing little or no employee voice in strategic organisational concerns. Most criticism of empowerment can be divided into two categories: reasons for operational failure, and wider ideological critiques.
A number of studies have pointed to practical reasons for the failure of empowerment schemes. These do not tend to take issue with the concept of empowerment as such but are critical of the way in which it has been applied. A study by Rothstein (1995) showed that an empowerment scheme in a US company failed because of management incompetence. Senior management, including the company president, failed to give adequate support, and employees felt they lacked authority to make meaningful decisions.
Training in empowerment was cursory, and communication systems were inadequate to deal with the feedback necessary between employees and managers at different levels and across the organisation. Senior management also expected success to be immediate, a situation that would inevitably lead to feelings of thwarted expectations. Wilkinson (1998) makes the point that empowerment schemes often fail because they are regarded too simplistically in the sense that ‘empowerment has different forms and should be analysed in the context of broader organisational practice’.
Buchanan and Preston’s (1992) research into high-performance teams (in which empowerment is central to the operation) showed that management was ever-mindful of how the cell team operations fitted with the broader business strategy. HRM strategy in terms of reward systems, flexitime systems, training and development was also crucial inenabling empowerment to operate effectively. Many schemes fail because senior management has not recognised that the implementation of empowerment schemes usually means a wholesale organisational culture change, which affects all corners of the organisation.
Honold (1997) also emphasises that culture change implies a change from a lowto a high-trust culture, including the ‘tolerance of risk taking’. It is often difficult to prescribe where the limits of risk taking and employee responsibility lie; such issues are not directly confronted in many organisations until a serious problem arises, and then it is often too late. Babson’s (1995) research into car plants showed that responsibilities transferred to employees were more symbolic than substantive, relegated to handing out pay cheques on pay day, for example.
Ideological criticisms are often couched in terms that empowerment systems are just another management ruse to exploit the workforce more effectively, and that in reality employee empowerment is limited and ultimately does not ‘free’ the workforce from the shackles of forms of control, arguments rehearsed earlier in this chapter. This has echoes of Friedman’s concept of ‘responsible autonomy’, in which the perception is given that employees have control over the work process but in reality this is limited and very much contained within the parameters of set performance targets. It is management that usually set the targets, not the employees.
Babson (1995) has raised a recurring concern within the EI literature, that empowerment schemes can undermine and destroy the legitimate and independent voice of the workforce – that is, the trade unions. This may be a deliberate ploy to undermine union presence and power, or to create a climate where the union presence is deemed superfluous as its role in mediating between management and workers is redundant.
A European Union-wide study by Wood and Fenton O’Creevy (1999) found that companies which depend on direct employee involvement that bypasses trade unions involved their employees less than those companies that recognised and involved unions. ‘This was because they involved workers in fewer issues and, when they did, they were less likely to consult or negotiate rather than simply inform them’.
Interestingly, they also found that the exclusive use of direct involvement schemes, such as those associated with empowerment, correlated with lower labour productivity.Another feature of the exploitation argument is that empowerment schemes reduce workforce levels. This follows the logic that as productivity increases fewer staff are needed. In other words, one is empowered out of a job! This is often associated with forms of lean production.
Parker and Slaughter (1995) also believe that this creates ‘a management by stress approach that pushes people and systems to the breaking point by increasingly forcing workers to do more with less’ (Honold, 1997: 209). Recent analysts have also referred to the ethics of empowerment (Quinn and Davies, 1999) and have attempted to explore the contradictions of the term in this context.
Kaler (1999), for example, states that empowerment does not necessarily increase the power of workers and he makes a distinction between personal power and positional power. The former is attributed to in-born characteristics of the individual, the latter to role and function – for example, the promotion of someone to the role of supervisor gives them the powers associated with that position.
He argues that organizational power is traditionally associated with positional power and is associated very much with powers of command, acountability and responisibility. Thus just announcing that all employees are ‘empowered’ does not in Kaler’s view mean that they will be.
Business process re-engineering (BPR), a popular initiative in the 1990s, had been hailed as the big solution to the problems facing companies and organisations (Peppard and Rowland, 1995). Its US advocates, such as Michael Hammer, claim that quality in production and service must now be accompanied by efficiency in process – that is, the way that groups and departments function interactively (Hammer and Champy, 1993).
BPR has enormous implications for employee involvement as its supporters advocate stripping away unnecessary layers of management and empowering the workforce to seek better process solutions in the drive towards greater efficiency. There have been studies that relate its successful application in a number of organizations (Buchanan, 1996), but ‘emphasis on the ability of re-engineering to reduce employee numbers shows how messages tend to get distorted as they are passed on.
Unfortunately, the message wanted and received by most of US industry was not improvement through reorganisation, but reduced costs through staff cuts’ (Mumford and Hendricks, 1996: 22). Given such experiences, it is not surprising that these schemes are viewed with an air of cynicism and fear by employees who may well become the next ‘victim’ in the drive towards efficiency.
Lumb (1996) has defended BPR as being ‘about changing the way people think and behave. It means investing employees with the power to make decisions and encouraging them to take risks.’ All laudable aims, but the raison d’être of companies is to operate profitably; if the confusion of message and intent is responsible for the growing cynicism that sees reduction of costs (BPR’s aim) as also incorporating not only efficient processes but reduction of staff levels, then messages of trust, commitment and empowerment could be radically undermined.
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