Some Thoughts on Empowerment

(by George Telfer)

“When Nike says, just do it, that's a message of empowerment.
Why aren't the rest of us speaking to young people in a voice of inspiration?”

(Naomi Klein)

Has empowerment become something of a forgotten word in today’s organisations? Either the principle of “giving people power or the ability to act upon or do” is now so embedded in organisations that it is no longer an issue, or has it become less desirable in management circles as the economic climate of the last few years has created a more protective mentality where entrenchment, centralisation and consolidation have resurfaced and decisions, big or small, are made or not made by those who appear to know best? Is it time, therefore, for managers to rethink and give the idea of empowering people a new lease of life?

In today’s organisations, regardless of the prevailing economic climate, management and employee attitudes toward empowerment will still range from short-term fads or shallow buzzwords, to a core philosophy that lies at the very heart of the company’s value system. We know that an enlightened view of talent and the potential that exists in every level of an organisation hasn’t always been so evident, particularly among our management forefathers. During the earlier part of the 20th century, Henry Fayol, for example, espoused the classical school of management theory that emphasised command and control. In almost military parlance, his ‘General and Industrial Management Theory’ viewed the functions of management as five-fold; to plan, organise, command, coordinate, and control. Even before Fayol, Frederick Taylor, regarded by many as the forefather of all scientific management theories, had defined ‘specialism’ as the first principle in effective organisations; with each employee viewed as a ‘cog in the machine’ and thereby assigned to one specific job; and even though his ideas did spark a positive change in management practices, he once famously told factory workers that they were “not supposed to think” and that it was managers who were “paid to do the thinking around here.”

Although Fayol and Taylor’s ideas were widely developed by others, fortunately, around the same time, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth had already founded a highly successful and pioneering business philosophy. Based upon contemporary time and motion studies, the elimination of waste and the reduction of time spent on purely work-based activities, they began the movement away from the obsession with control towards an interest in and an understanding of the importance of people. Lillian Gilbreth’s ‘Psychology of Management’ became one of the first detailed applications of the psychological concept in management, with the emphasis placed more upon the person rather than the task and efficiency being best served by modifying the equipment, materials and methods to make the most of the individual and the team.

Although Fayol and Taylor would not have wholly approved of Gilbreth’s more enlightened focus on the individual, it was later developed by Elton Mayo in his now famous Hawthorne experiments that highlighted the fundamental importance of social interaction. For quite differing reasons all of these theories gave root to the ‘Total Quality’ movement of the 1980’s and became the predecessors of empowerment as a modern business concept.

What, then, are the pros of empowerment and are there the inevitable cons as well?

It might help to examine what empowerment actually means and why it has become, at the very least, a concept and popular philosophy rather than a reality in many organisations. The Oxford Dictionary defines empowerment as “to authorise or licence a person to do; give power to; make able a person to do.” But this should also mean first evaluating and then developing an individual or team’s potential and then providing challenging tasks that match their developmental needs. At best, it should mean delegating the authority to decide and providing training in the appropriate skills and the freedom within the culture for people to manage themselves.

However, should we not view empowerment as something that cannot be delegated or forced upon people and that they first have to want it? The idea of empowerment being introduced as a management level decision creates a prevailing attitude that authoritative measures have to be in place first in order to empower people to act and may be somewhat incongruent with the conscious decision of an individual to choose to act in an empowered manner.

Empowerment is essentially a leadership issue that starts with the premise that the function of leadership is to enable others and to cultivate leadership in others. If people have an awareness and then a desire and are then able to command and control their own working environment, managers can then place power in their hands by delegating decision-making responsibilities as far down the line as possible. Put simply, it should be the transfer of power from manager to employee. Too often, as we are all too aware, false dawns of empowered workers have based these new found working relationships more upon hope than on an effective alignment between the four layers of vision, strategy, tactics and operations. Any naive approaches to empowerment, such as the collapse of Barings Bank, the oldest merchant bank in London, in 1995, which wiped out £827 million of the Bank’s assets by trusting that a young futures trader, Nick Leeson, would continue to do a good job in Singapore, precipitaed the similar collapse of several global institutions in recent years and has almost rendered Barings' losses as minor. More recent failures such as Enron, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Northern Rock and the RBS reminds us of a ‘forget early’ culture still prevalent today and that authority must always be delegated with responsibility; sometimes even with regulation.

And what is meant by power? Some managers will say it’s the only way to get things done in an organisation and in its raw state, it can be just that ... getting people to do what is required by having the final decision on what that actually is. There is, however, an important addition to the ability to make things happen, and that is also having the power to prevent them from happening.

Abraham Maslow claimed that human beings have a range of hierarchical needs; each one at their own level, once satiated, serving a progression to the next. These needs, in effect, amount to ‘being’, having, doing, growing and belonging.’ In an organisational context, being empowered can fulfil some of these needs and our ever-changing organisational expectations by creating greater learning opportunities and by enhancing knowledge and skills. When people and teams have the information and the authority they need to make decisions and are encouraged to take personal responsibility and at the same time accept accountability for the way they achieve tasks, people will feel a greater sense of involvement and job enrichment. Although there may be scepticism and even resistance at first, do we ever experience people resisting their own ideas?

Robert Frost, the New England poet-farmer claimed that “the brain was an organ that started working the moment we got up in the morning and didn’t stop until we got into the office.” We know that empowered employees bring their brains to work and that it can also expose emergent leadership talent and allow it to flourish. This, in itself, empowers more senior managers and enables them to ‘step back’ and take a more strategic view of the organisation. The late Steve Jobs believed that empowerment created a competitive advantage through increased innovation and greater organisational effectiveness. Just feeling empowered can give people a sense of achievement, perhaps even a higher degree of intrinsic motivation.

Motivation, itself, is a key factor when considering the ‘cons’ of empowerment but can any ‘thing’ give ‘anyone’ their own self-motivation? Can individuals and teams be empowered to act – surely they must empower themselves? In an organisation where people are afraid to take actions without checking with some higher authority they may even resist any attempt to be empowered. Unfortunately, people can also have quite negative attitudes to new ideas; a wariness of change or a belief that any new found power is both transient and fragile and will be taken back if it doesn’t achieve the desired results or if a new crisis prevails. In truth, not everyone may even want to be empowered with some employees simply not prepared to take on more work or a perceived authority just for the feeling of being more in control, especially if they are not paid any more for doing so! Empowerment initiatives may even cause considerable discomfort and questions whether people will have the stomach for a lengthy and uncomfortable cultural change process.

In attitudes and skills, some employees may be less able than others to cope with empowerment. From my own experiences, working, at times, with the so-called ‘mature workforce’, longer tenured employees have a tendency to reject the concept of empowerment; seeing it as another fad that would have no real long-term sustainability or impact. Their ‘new bottles for old wine’ analogy suggests that empowerment is purely a psychological event with no real substance. “If managers have to keep telling us we are empowered, then we probably aren’t.”

Regardless of the sweeping tide of globalisation, there are also some inevitable national and cultural barriers to empowerment. Success may be more predictable in ‘horizontal’ (Western) societies than in more ‘vertical’ (Asian) societies. All too often, there are just too many forces telling managers to keep a grip on things. This could arise from concerns that employees may confuse it with ‘permissiveness’ or because managers see power as having a finite quantity; a ‘zero sum game’ and a fear that by sharing power and authority, control and respect will be lost. Some, however, see it as having the opposite effect – By giving away power, it can judiciously make one more powerful. Empowerment is about releasing power, not giving it up but too often it is seen as a ‘one-way’ process. It cannot simply be a case of employees ‘having it’ and managers ‘giving it’. It is an ‘outward and upward’ process too. In the same way that managers can influence and empower their fellow managers, can employees not empower their own leaders too?

What, then, are the implications of empowerment for senior executives? Is it desirable, or is empowerment just too high a price to pay?

Stephen Covey claims that management’s role is empowerment and if organisations want to empower people, managers must firstly recognise that their people are resourceful with untapped potential. By empowering people you increase your span of control, reduce overheads, and get rid of unnecessary bureaucracy, yet the current British Government seems to have gained very little credence by seeking to cut through the bureaucracy within the public sector or through the impending National Health Service Bill as an empowerment strategy and not merely to balance the national deficit.

The central issue for modern organisations is to balance ‘top down’ control with ‘bottom up’ empowerment. Power, concentrated at the top, will inevitably have to shift downwards as people seem increasingly less prepared to accept the old command and control systems. This difficulty with ‘letting go’ remains a key stumbling block for managers on the road to empowerment. Organisations now realise that sustainability means doing more with less and we don’t have the time anymore to control every decision that is made. It’s about creating the right environment, clarifying guidelines, boundaries and parameters and then setting people free. It’s also about challenging minds and capturing hearts … Strategy is ultimately about people and sometimes just to get out of the way is the best action a manager can take.

Organisations, therefore, will need to become flatter and less hierarchical and thereby remove any organisational barriers. True empowerment operates with as few rules as possible but people need to be clear about the intended result, and to know the boundaries within which they can act and this needs to be communicated effectively throughout the whole organisation.

Empowering others may entail giving up being ‘in authority’ and developing more of the role of being ‘an authority’. It requires both a culture change and a shift in philosophy; encouraging people, at all levels, to feel they can make a difference and then to help them to acquire the confidence and skills to do so. It will need a more compassionate leadership to hold empowerment together - an ‘emotionally intelligent’ leadership that fosters openness, honesty, caring and a respect for people.

Within this environment, new coaching skills will also be required. Workers will need new tools to become high performing teams. Managers will need to play the roles of coach and facilitator, helping people solve their own problems; knowing when to step in and when to simply step back. Until now, managerial behaviour has, too often, been directed towards preventing employees from making mistakes. Empowering others means developing the capacity to tolerate errors in the overall learning process. It must, at the same time, eliminate reward structures that reinforce old methods and procedures and replace them with a new set of values that praise effort and ideas, foster creativity, and encourage and support initiative. The role of information is to empower rather than control and investing in education, training and personal development will ensure that knowledge and information is appropriately placed and shared throughout the organisation. There must also be a strong trust relationship underpinning any empowerment initiative so that goals and values become shared ones. Trust given results in trust, support and loyalty returned.

Are the followers of all successful leaders empowered? The answer has to be no. Success is defined as the achievement, accomplishment, or attainment of an intended outcome. John Harvey-Jones, the former ICI Chairman wrote of a ‘conservatism’ in our appreciation of others’ abilities but the real art of growing people lies in a ‘stretching process’. People feel disempowered when they are not trusted to do anything but success is surely the ‘goal of empowerment’ when people can share a mutually beneficial and rewarding experience that meets both their social and personal needs.

In summary, there are many differing views on what empowerment really is. It will not last, however, if it is seen merely as delegation or as a cost exercise to reduce headcount. Empowerment has to be an organisational outcome rather than a process. It is truly cultural and as much a feeling of empowerment as it is a modus operandi. It occurs when an organisation with clear objectives and the right balance of controls and disciplines is in synergy with a fully trained, competent and motivated work force at every level. People and not systems and processes lie at the heart of empowerment. All innovation and creativity emanates from the actions of individuals and teams and whether they choose to be empowered or not.


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