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Is Empowerment a License to Act Irresponsibly?

 

There is no doubt that empowerment is on the agenda of many organizations. Lower-level employees feel that they can contribute to business success much more than they are allowed to do today. Above all, the young generation demands this active participation as they feel that they can indeed take on this responsibility. But what is real empowerment? Is empowerment more than telling people what you want from them, indeed giving them the tools to do it and then leaving them alone?    

The empowerment of a person or group of people is the process of giving them power and status in a particular situation. Therefore, empowerment exists in an organization when the lower-level employees feel that they are expected to implement initiatives in good faith on behalf of the mission even if it goes outside the bounds of their normal responsibilities (Appelbaum, S., Honeggar, K.; 1998). This means–as empowerment includes the term “power”–the power architecture of an organization needs to be changed. Too many management team members forget about this power-sharing requirement. Sharing the functional power within an organization is a process. It is unlikely that clarity, consensus and commitment will be established spontaneously or, by definition, that empowerment should be the new rule of collaboration. This process has to include the transformation of the visions, hopes, fears and expectations of all members (on all levels) of an organization so that they can commit to this mission. It therefore affects all dimensions of organizational design. Empowerment is much more than just delegating tasks to lower-level employees.    

Unfortunately, the degrees of success attained from empowering people have ranged from impressive successes to miserable failures (and very often somewhere in-between). Once we are able to attain (real) empowerment, the outlook is impressive. It does not only increase the employees’ responsiveness and satisfaction, but moreover various studies have already shown that it results in an increase in productivity, speed, enthusiasm and creativity as well as higher-quality services and an improved competitive position. The efforts required for the implementation process indeed pay off, but only if this implementation is done comprehensively. 

Organizational transformation requires empowerment and participation at all levels. It improves the status of the lower-level employees and gives them autonomy in the decision-making process because it also has a positive effect on teamwork which strengthens the relationships between people. Therefore, empowerment is an important element in the Agile Model of NeuroChange.    

 

“At Inditex, we try to manage our business as if they were still small start-ups. ...

The organization is very flat. That means a lot of people are empowered to make decisions.” 


Pablo Isla CEO Inditex; (Source: HBR November 2016)

 

Empowered organizations often indeed have very flat structures. It is unlikely that empowerment can be successfully implemented without any structural changes in the organization. Today’s organizations are too bureaucratic, are characterized by poor communication systems and a highly centralized structure. The power is concentrated in the hierarchies and senior managers still want to retain control over the decision-making processes. But all of this is just building barriers within the organizations and does not allow empowerment to flourish. We therefore have to eliminate the barriers within our structures and we can do this by breaking down the traditional hierarchies. The purpose of hierarchical structures is to strengthen rules and (functional) power. Empowered organizations do not need this anymore because too many rules are blocking people’s innovation and the (functional) power has to be transferred to the lower level of hierarchies. The function of the senior management is changing. By embodying a participative management style, their tasks are focused on goal-setting, job enrichment and feedback. They have to ensure that the empowered people in charge receive the information they need in their decision-making processes. This makes it essential that we have leaders, not just managers anymore at the senior management level. 

The relationship between the employees and their superiors is also sustainably changing. Studies in particular about middle managers have shown that they feel valued and more committed to the organization as such due to their individual contributions and initiatives.  Top-down decision-making hardly creates a positive feeling and fosters socio-political support within an organization. Moreover, the middle management is above all an important driver within the organization. As studies have also shown, lower-level employees feel most empowered when they see that their superiors are both empowering and supportive.    

As this discussion shows, there are many arguments to support the empowerment initiatives within our organizations. The three most important ones for me are:

  1.  Empowerment will keep the knowledge within the company
    because empowered employees are much more committed and loyal;
  2. Empowerment will lead to better customer satisfaction
    because it brings the power of an organization to the customer interface;
  3.  Empowerment will make the organization more flexible and agile
    because empowered employees’ responses are a reflection of business changes.

Furthermore, organizations interested in effective organizational development and change management programs regularly seek out, acknowledge and reward employee feedback. Empowerment is a means to an end in every transformation process. Empowered organizations respond faster to market changes by easily integrating more people into the change management process. 

Merely seeing the effects of empowerment does not necessarily give us any options. It is not a question of whether we want to implement empowerment or not. Moreover, empowerment is not merely an old formula of power in a new package, but rather it is more a question of organizational survival in many businesses because the talented young people will take this for granted or will leave. Therefore, let’s start empowering our organization, but let’s implement real empowerment and not just talk about it.