Empowerment Re-visited

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The term empowerment, now very much a part of our linguistic landscape, has been in vogue since the early ’90s. In general I think most people take it to mean the act of giving ‘power’ to someone less powerful.

Socio-politically, it has been used to refer to empowering people or groups of people who have been excluded from societal decision-making processes through for example, discrimination based on disability, race, ethnicity, religion, or gender.

Organisationally, management writers have promoted it as an approach to leadership that is more likely to achieve success than traditional top-down approaches. In order words, empowering subordinates is a means or tool for attaining organisational effectiveness. If this is the envisaged outcome, why is there such a gulf between the official rhetoric of empowerment and employees’ lived experiences of our evaluation, compliance and accountability systems?

Power dimensions exist in all human systems and these are, more often than not, asymmetrical.  In which case, it is important to ask whether the motive behind promoting empowerment is a genuine attempt to give away (or at least equalise) power, or whether it is a way (albeit unconsciously) of manipulating staff to do what leaders believe is right? In this context, empowerment might simply be the expectation that staff will do what the leaders want to see happen. When they don’t, they are brought into line by demanding accountability and/or sanctioning them for the lack of it. If this is the case, empowerment initiatives are often experienced as a psychological form of managerial control.

Interestingly, the so-called powerless, can (and do) also exercise particular forms of power – they do this in an attempt to counter control. For example, learning the management vocabulary (jargon) in order to benefit from the situation (“playing the game”); working to rule; publicly telling managers what they want to hear but doing the opposite in private; creating dissent; gossiping; etc. These are probably the reasons why many change initiatives fail.

I am not advocating doing away with empowerment initiatives. However, there seems little point trying to create an empowerment culture, without a change in management’s mental modal of leadership, particularly how leaders view and deal with difference. For many (leaders), uniformity and conformity is often privileged over diversity. In this context, diversity is often only allowed within the confines of the strategic plan. In other words, diversity is encouraged in ‘how’ employees do their work but not ‘what’ they do. Management determines the latter.  In this case, the use of radical and democratic language of empowerment is merely an attempt to bring people in line with a pre-devised plan.

I believe that empowerment begins when leaders are able to ditch diagnostic evaluation for appreciative valuation. We do this by reframing leadership from directors and evaluators to that of co-creators and conversational partners. It is this paradigm shift that determines whether empowerment is truly emancipatory.  Otherwise, it is merely a form of coercive persuasion.

Most books and articles I’ve come across on the empowerment seem to trivialise the conflict that exist in organisations and ignores the contested context within which empowerment takes place. This is a fatal flaw. For me, the first step towards empowerment needs to be the acknowledgement that organisations are ideologically diverse; and, begin with a deep reflection about how power relations works within that organisation.  If your sense is that the leadership is not fully committed to the idea of empowerment, it is probably more honest, and less painful, to embark on employee engagement rather than empowering initiatives.

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