Idea 18 - Empowerment (50 Management ideas you really need to know)


Idea 18 -  Empowerment

The history of modern business practice began with 'scientific management', which wanted the very opposite of empowerment. Until then, each skilled workman had done his job in his own idiosyncratic fashion. Scientific management's Frederick W. Taylor insisted that they drop all that and carry out the task in the 'one best way', which had been measured and timed to perfection. Empowerment just wasn't in it for Taylor, though he did introduce one small vent for self-expression - the suggestion box.

The history of empowerment in the workplace has, in a way, simply been a journey back to the status quo ante. Its history is not lengthy. In 1977, when Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote Men and Women of the Corporation, a study of power and the role of women in a large organization, there still didn't seem to be much of it about. The book was in the vanguard of a movement to give employees some discretion over their work (a reasonable definition of empowerment), to emancipate them from rigid hierarchies, and generally loosen things up. Today many more studies have claimed to show a link between treating subordinates more like grownups, and their developing more initiative, motivation, well-being and 'engagement'.
Engaged employees have a stronger emotional bond to the company. They are more likely to recommend the firm to others, to put in time and effort to help it succeed and to come up with their own innovative ideas and solutions to problems. Kanter tells a revealing story of a fabric company that made complicated woven materials. Yam breakage during production was a long-standing problem, adding to cost and representing a competitive disadvantage. A new executive, who believed in opening the search for ideas and innovation to all employees, held a meeting to discuss the need for change. A veteran worker, who had joined as a young immigrant, tentatively suggested an idea for ending the breakage - and it worked. When asked how long he had had that idea, the worker replied, 'Thirty-two years.
'It's only a job' Working as part of a team, towards a common purpose, can be more motivating too, and Western companies learnt from Japanese structures like Kaizen teams. A Gallup study in 1999 demonstrated that engaged employees could bring a broader range of benefits to the company. It said they were more productive, more profitable, and more customer-focused. They also had, or caused, fewer accidents and were less likely to head off in search of another job. Some employees flatly don't want to be engaged - 'it's only a job' - and never will be. Critics regard empowerment as a scam that squeezes more work out of employees without actually giving them any meaningful power. However, the balance of opinion is that a more enabling work environment has positive, occasionally spectacular, results.
If it doesn't produce results, chances are it's not empowerment. Managements are inclined to pay lip service to the idea - 'everyone's doing empowerment these days, aren't they?' - without walking the walk. They may not even understand what it means. Merely asking people what
they think about something is not the same as enabling them-to make decisions about their jobs. And second-guessing the decision you have just empowered someone to make doesn't feel particularly enabling to the decision-maker. Likewise, breathing down their necks doesn't display trust and confidence in their abilities, though under-supervision suggests you aren't really interested, which can be just as demotivating.
A recent study found that perceptions of the importance of one's job and its place in the organization's endeavours had a bigger impact on loyalty and customer service than all other employee factors combined. 'You're not cutting stone; you're building a cathedral,' as one consultant puts it. Employees need clarity as to what exactly is expected of them, along with the necessary resources to deliver it. The ground rules need to be laid out: the boundaries of empowerment, beyond which employees must not stray; governing policies and principles; any corporate sacred cows. People have to know to whom they are accountable and in what ways, as well as the consequences of success or failure: promotion, bonus, a pat on the back or the sack (for some, a pat on the back is worth more than a bonus). Once these guidelines are laid down, let people decide the best methods and means to do the job, empowerment advocates recommend.
Leadership effect Empowerment is clearly a of leadership. Powerlessness cascades down the organization. Managers who feel their own power is threatened or diminished will often take it away from others wherever they can. 'The two sides of power (getting it and giving it) are closely connected,' as Kanter observes. Leadership specialist Warren Bennis describes empowerment as 'the collective effect of leadership'. He believes that where there are good leaders empowerment is evident in different ways. One is that people feel significant - that they make a difference to the success of the organization. It may be a small difference but it has meaning. They also value learning and competence, as a good leader does, in personal development as well as work skills.
Bennis believes that empowerment and leadership create a sense of community, even among people who don't especially like each other. He points to Neil Armstrong and his Apollo team, who carried out a highly complex set of interdependent tasks in order to land on the moon, noting: 'Until there were women astronauts, the men referred to this feeling as "brotherhood" ... I suggest they rename it "family".' He also argues that, where there is empowerment, work becomes more stimulating, more exciting, more fun. People become immersed in their work, doing it not because they have to but because they want to. Bennis says that pulling rather than pushing people towards a goal is important in organizational leadership. 'A "pull" style of influence attracts and energizes people to enroll in an exciting vision of the future. It motivates through identification, rather than through rewards and punishments".

Reference: 50 Management Ideas You Really Need to Know

Book by Edward Russell-Walling


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