EMPOWERMENT – The Need, Barriers, Measures and Implications

Published: 2019/11/27 Number of words: 4335

Helping people grow and achieve their dreams is the fastest route to success; both theirs and yours.” – T. Harv Eker

Growth was never an individual prerogative and never will be. The limits of human capabilities still remain undiscovered. How much a person can develop and realise his or her potential is a function of the circumstances that govern his or her freedom and history stands testimony to the fact that human potential generally suffers under degrading and imperial conditions. The above statement by motivational speaker T. Harv Eker indicates the importance of helping people discover and develop their innate potential, which is the safest and surest way to achieving overall growth, which especially stands to be true in context of the age-old organisational relationship between subordinate and superior.

The functionality of any kind of working system requires basic principles. In the times of Taylor and Ford, these principles were basically that of macho-management, which predominantly saw that profits were made whilst ignoring worker conditions, both physical and psychological. The changing conditions coupled with the undesired results of scientific management changed the way organisations felt about prerequisites of growth and thus ejected Fordist and Taylorist theories, however with great reluctance.

This essay intends to support the worker centrality of the remit and need to embody empowerment theories in organisational programmes for development via participation, consultation and co-operation. Then, the various impediments facing workplace and organisational restructuring will be discussed in terms of extent and scope. The last part includes directives that can be implemented into organisational strategy to effect change that makes workforce empowerment as effective as possible.


A historic account and the need for empowerment
It’s imminent in today’s times when “reporting relationships are shifting, and new talent-management tools and approaches are constantly emerging”2, that managers realise the importance of their workforce. The concept of empowerment deals with engaging the workforce not only in critical thinking of their jobs but also reflective management of their work in order to develop latent human potential – because as John F. Kennedy rightly said “The human mind is our fundamental resource.”

In its rudimentary sense, “empowerment is essentially about collective influence and the sharing of knowledge, insight and experience of knowledge to improve organisational performance”3. This indicates the need to realise potential of the workforce and tap into the human resources whilst avoiding the mistake of limiting access of employees to developmental activities, because it is a primitive practice that does not fit into today’s changing civil society3.

History of Employee Treatment
A retrospective view to the “folly of restricting access”3 can help substantiate the importance of empowerment and participative opportunities in current dynamically changing business environments.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow became the first person to delve into the human psyche to investigate what motivates human beings through his hierarchy of needs10. The study triggered tremendous interest in human motivational study but with an intention of exploiting it. Maslow’s needs theory was based on an undeniably incorrect premise of categorisation of human needs and on the assumption that humans could be motivated by money. The validity of this assumption may survive during adverse economic conditions but in today’s contexts, the premise dies a brutal death.

In 1908, Ford’s assembly line concept in his car making business, that shot him to fame, applied needs theory practically, when financial incentives like ‘five dollars a day’ and ‘Americanisation program’ were introduced in order to affect workers’ psychological and esteem needs, based on Maslow’s theory. The reason for Ford and his company’s resounding success in the 1900’s was the economic condition that was presented to his methods. The labour was malleable and in need of financial help. The ‘low skill’ requirement agenda and better pay formed the basis of employee attraction. His deskilling methods via job division brought the price of cars to widely affordable levels and hence his company survived competition. However, adverse labour conditions in his factories over time caused increasing absenteeism, mental and physical health concerns and counter productivity due to rigid labour behaviour in times of buoyant markets3. In addition, his labour management methods were highly criticised as being dehumanising and opportunistically imperial by critics of Taylorism like Harry Braverman and Anthony Gramsci,

Ford could be easily accused to follow Taylor’s ideas in his car manufacturing organisation for labour management. The main ideas of labour division, work segmentation, surveillance and financial incentives for motivation11 used by Ford could be directly correlated with Taylorism. Although appreciated for the profits they bore, overtime, incompetence and non-humanistic facets emerged because of two reasons; the first being the effect of changing markets on the way management dealt with their employees and effect of this on an informed customers’ perspective. The second reason was increasing awareness of the workforce about their rights and demand for humane and worker centred management practices.

Pre 21st Century changes
The QWL movement and human relations movement were the first ones to draw attention to employee welfare as a managerial concern through “participation and empowerment, theoretically by considering the impact of systems and machinery from the standpoint of employees.”3

The outcome of these ideas was a more responsive system of management that, as a turnaround from Taylorism and Fordism, offered autonomy of working groups and freedom of thought. It was intended to promote “meaningful, enriching and productive experience”3 to the workers. More specifically, managers were asked to assign their workers with more meaningful work so that they have a sense of achievement. The workers were allowed to move between jobs and to work in groups to develop responsive and critical thinking. Job contents were revised from a worker point of view because it was the worker who knew the job and details of its performance. But these “suffered serious setbacks in times of recession and corporate instability, confronting frequent back-pedalling and fluctuating patterns of managerial responsiveness”3. This indicated the need for progressive management idea that enjoins pragmatic change patterns, which obviate the effects of the aforementioned factors of prior failures. Empowerment is being proposed as one such progressive management idea.

Illustrating the effects of offering autonomy of decisions and freedom to act as a part of the psychological contract from the Loeb centre for Nursing and Rehabilitation located in New York, Susan Bower-Ferres, assistant director of the Loeb Centre describes it as one that offers the registered nurse to develop her role in a system facilitated unencumbered environment. Organisationally facilitated environment for participative working was able to affect “nurse accountability and co-ordination between physicians, other departments and outside agencies.”5 The result was a statistically proven improvement record of active service the centre had rendered in a four-year span. This proves the reliability of empowerment in a dynamic setting of a nursing centre where service demands are often unpredictable and sudden.


Managing Innovation at work
Empowerment has been a controversial issue ever since its inception whilst the development of worker centred approaches to labour management during the 1970’s.Its survival and pace of dispersion across industrial think tanks is a testimony to its ambitious nature. But the downside to this has been both, practical and theoretical impediments. The following statement by Chris Argyris sums up the problems, which are elaborated further:

The change programs and practices we employ are full of inner contradictions that cripple innovation, motivation, and drive. At the same time, CEOs subtly undermine empowerment. Managers love empowerment in theory, but the command-and-control model is what they trust and know best. For their part, employees are often ambivalent about empowerment – it is great as long as they are not held personally accountable. – Chris Argyris1

Scientific Management and its legacy
According to Mike Noon and Paul Blyton, “Taylor’s ideas have made (and continue to make) a crucial impact on the thinking about job design and the division of labour.”11, a fact that empowerment enthusiasts have been trying to counter and conquer to change the basic mindsets that dictate the accepted view of an organisation and its way of working. The after-effects of Taylorist ideologies and Fordist concepts of applications are still found in most of today’s management practices, the reasons being attitudinal inertia and reluctance to accept an out-of-box approach considering it to be too radical and trust in command-and control model. This disinclination can further be attributed to the resilience of the techniques of scientific management in explanation and logic in regards to managerial level understanding,11 in contrast to the ambiguities that the specifics of empowerment entail as identified by Jay Conger and Rabindra Kanugo:

“Despite the recognized role of empowerment in management theory and practice, our understanding of the construct is limited and often confusing. For example, most management theorists have dealt with empowerment as a set of managerial techniques and have not paid sufficient attention to its nature or the processes underlying the construct. This may reflect the pragmatic or practice orientation of theorists, and the result may be an inadequate understanding of the notion of empowerment and its theoretical rationale for related practices.” – Conger and Kanugo6

This takes the discussion further to those existing contradictions and misconceptions clouding empowerment concept.

Confusion with Empowerment Concepts
Empowerment is an ambitiously radical diversion from traditional and evidently deep-rooted sense of management practices. It seems to propose changes to the existing fundamental approaches in management on the whole and in doing so, disconcerts the audience with vague descriptions of its implications, scope and extent and also the ways of application. Most of the empowerment enthusiasts hail empowerment as strong change philosophy by elucidating its holistic benefits but what they fail to explain is how these proposed changes affect the fundamentals of management attitudes and methods to bring about these benefits. Reiterating from Conger and Kanugo, the subject of empowerment has been dealt as a list of directives to its users and much has not been done to unambiguously communicate the way the intent of empowerment serves its purpose.

Moreover, most of the existing examples of practical approaches to empowerment are seriously flawed because of the treatment of application with a background of taylorist mentalities. There is no doubt that the idea, however vague, has been communicated, but the subsequent follow up lacks analytical commitment6 that was seen in Taylor’s work with Scientific Management. It is not wrong, with this piece of evidence, to say that most of the empowerment jargon that exists out there covers its idea only in words and labels using glossy language and does little towards its analysis in practical contexts.

To put this simply, idea of empowerment requires answering a number of conceptual and practical questions8. Some of them are:

  • To what extent does job enrichment and enlargement affect the top and middle management’s job description?
  • How can the bequest of power down the hierarchy be promoted or does it really require acquisition of power for those being empowered?
  • Can empowerment not entail loss of responsibility by some (usually middle managers)?
  • What is the scope of its implications? Is it the origin of autonomy or simply an offer of increased say in management or just a choice among the options laid out by management?

Most issues like these aren’t attended to as“ the burgeoning prescriptive or celebratory literature on empowerment is replete with equivocation, tautology and contradiction in equal measure about what ‘empowerment’ is, for whom, to what extent, where and why empowerment should occur and what else accompanies it.”8. The contrast between the portrayal of empowerment as a new-age philosophy and the ambiguous nature of its concepts, usually prescriptive, casts doubt on the much celebrated strength of this philosophy to cause positive change.4 Thus, following Chris Argyris, empowerment is after all “emperors’ new clothes.”1

Acceptance and Attitudinal Inertia
The extent of effect of internalisation of Taylorist and Fordist concepts on the basic understanding of a simple organisational system, be it service or product oriented, has in a way curtailed the progressive thought process necessary for realising new ways of managing organisations. From what we know, there has always been a hierarchy, a method of doing things on the job, a code of conduct, idea of where information or knowledge must or should come from and who hold it, so on and so forth. These attitudinal hurdles prevent absolute realisation of empowerment. Grassroots of fundamentals cannot be affected unless this flawed conceptualisation of organisations is corrected or adjusted to create space for worker centrality to survive and develop within the system, promoting the system’s growth too.

The attitudinal reluctance or inertia, so to say, is basically a problem that can be understood from a psychological viewpoint. The age-old axiom that humans do not welcome ‘change’ holds true in this regard. In most practical problems brought out from experience or academic study, it was clear that attitudinal inertia afflicted mid level implementers and acquirers of empowerment.

Top management, either while keeping with the fad or sincerely, implement empowerment that affects the organisation across its hierarchical ranks. Major problems facing absolute organisational conformation to empowerment principles are attitudes that encompass conflict across hierarchical strata and plural professional affiliations, with dearth of critical studies at this level of empowering issues being a contributing factor4.

To actually point out some examples, one of the problems NHS faced whilst implementation of empowerment in one of its hospitals was non-conformist behavior of ward co-coordinators who withheld information causing additional problems in the already crippled patient care. Similar examples of non-conformist or hesitant behavior could be found in many companies for example; a study undertaken by Colin Hales and Antonis Klidas, investigating the reality of empowerment in 10 5-star hotels in Amsterdam, highlighted how the” amenability of the concept to a variety of interpretations” leads to the creation of “an ideological terrain on which the conflict between senior and junior managers over attempts to reconstitute managerial work is conducted.”8

The employees on the other hand, the stars of the show called empowerment or at least who are made to feel like one, are, as Chris Argyris observed ambivalent. This is a natural result of unspoken scepticism because of the much abused command-and control model that binds employees to ‘them and us’ mentality. From the employees’ viewpoint, this behaviour is quite logical because the main ideology of empowerment is provision of power and an employee who had gotten used to being controlled by his superiors in the first place, feels the rabbit hole getting deeper when he is offered power and the accountability for it at the same time. It is therefore, obvious to expect scepticism and mixed responses. In all of this, the main premise of empowerment again suffers.

These are the very general issues that empowerment faces in its implementation as an accepted management concept. As we delve deeper, it is inevitable to realise presence of specific impediments both while understanding and applying the concept and its general interpretations. The solution lies in committed resolve and a set of underpinning guidelines that provide direction to achieve attitudinal, organisational and motivational conformation that sets the pace of empowerment as a philosophy of beneficial change.


Solving the Empowerment paradox
It can, in all validity be argued that the concept of empowerment is paradoxical in nature because while it speaks of allowing discretion to the workforce, it is the management that is bringing about the change. Looking beyond the contradictions of the paradox, previously constructed arguments have established the imminent need to realise those resources that present themselves in the form of an organisations’ workforce. Organisational conformation to empowerment is the need of the hour and one that requires a sense of commitment on the part of the managers, because in order to overcome difficulties and promote empowerment within their organisations, major conceptual restructuring needs to be first done at management’s end.

The problems mentioned earlier can be solved and thwarted by application of certain self-control measures like

  • Absolute avoidance of Taylorist and Fordist mentalities in speech as well as in actions
  • Clarifying the management’s understanding of empowerment to the organisation and the level of commitment expected
  • Removing conceptual and pragmatic difficulties that may be encountered while promoting unity of purpose

Against a background of above-mentioned underpinning measures, what follows is a set of guidelines that are intended to aid managers in achieving organisational conformation to empowerment.

Because of the existing structural setting of most organisations, the initial set of guidelines will (1) reorganise separately, antecedent management tendencies and workforce perception to overcome its attitudinal inertia. There by, (2) a set of guidelines to affect employee and employer disposition towards empowerment, and (3) organisational conformation strategies and methods of promoting employee engagement and unity will be elicited.

“Empowerment is a process of enhancing feelings of self-efficacy among organizational members through the identification of conditions that foster powerlessness and through their removal by both formal organizational practices and informal techniques of providing efficacy information.” – Conger and Kanugo6

Empowerment, due to its basic nature cannot thrive in a climate of powerlessness. Control over situations is a necessary prerequisite. The need of recognition of structures and/or actions that (either knowingly or unknowingly) foster powerlessness thus becomes mandatory antecedent for empowerment strategies6. In most cases, these are intimately linked to reluctance of top and middle managers in bequeathing control, impoverished need for growth of employees due to lack of motivation and/or sceptical view of managerial actions. Following Conger and Kanugo, managers should take the initiative and recognise:

  • Organisation factors that
    • Create or cause bureaucratic climate
    • Result in poor/unclear communication
    • Result in unnecessary resource centralisation
  • Supervisory styles that
    • Is authoritarian
    • De-motivating
    • Uninformed
  • Reward systems that
    • Ignores employee efforts towards innovation, competency
    • Low level of incentive value
  • Job structures that
    • Lacks role clarity
    • Unrealistic goals
    • Offers little or no training
    • Is overtly mechanical or rigidly structured
    • Lacks meaningful tasks
    • Limits contacts within the workforce and with senior management

Extracted from Academy of Management review6

Corrective measures
The very first corrective measure that every company, irrespective of its ultimate goal, should apply is the ideology of transparency within the organisation, in all its actions, words and dealings. Quite a natural outcome to this will be increased employee trust in the management and improved acceptance levels. Transparency is the act of unambiguous communication of management’s goal; it’s expectation of its employees and substantiation of commitment that employees should expect. The company policy while staying clear of capitalist ideologies of growth should encompass intentions that help establish an environment that is replete with mutual trust and encouragement of individual growth.

According to Frederick Herzberg, employee motivation can be greatly affected by implementing positive psychological KITA, where in the need for recurring external stimulation of employee engagement is obviated. In his, Motivation-Hygiene theory9, he proposes seven basic principles9 (Annexe1) that help in ‘vertical job loading’ as opposed to horizontal job loading, to build a self sustaining motivation mechanism for the workforce.

Annexure 1 shows these seven principles that Herzberg proposed to affect Job enrichment and inculcate self-motivating characters in the employees. The seven principles can be shown to influence both, the level of job satisfaction an employee experiences and his/her level of aspiration or need of growth as these two experimentally can be shown to hold a sway over motivation potential and employee ability to respond positively to change7, that in turn affects workplace engagement, conducive environment creation and ultimately realisation of workers as the centre piece to overall company growth and development.

Sustaining the pace
Managers should know that empowerment is not a one-off implementation strategy and needs constant supervision and periodic appraisal thereafter. Maintaining the idea of worker centrality and its importance to development through collective corrective measures mentioned before, managers can promote and sustain empowerment. The following directives are presented to help in empowerment appraisal, development and sustenance within the organisation.

  • Improving awareness and removal of
    • Factors that seem to enhance bureaucratic climate
    • Systems that overtly impress employee dependence on superiors
    • Structures that limit discretion, freedom and fearlessness
    • Job designs that fail to motivate
  • Appraisal of
    • Restructured tasks especially promoters of worker discretion
    • Measures that enhance worker motivation
    • Employee attitudes to identify those which are retrograde
    • Deviations that recede intended outcomes

It is the consistency of commitment of managers and constant engagement on the part of employees that can guarantee success of empowerment.

Empowering people is now being perceived as a prerequisite to organisational success and sustained growth in dynamic market environments by drawing heavily upon human resource and integrating this with all business processes. But, human resource which is central to the remit of empowerment requires special focus for its sustained development in order that, innovations being obtained from this resource are continuous and progressive. It will be highly detrimental to consider empowerment as a tool to achieve organisational success only, since the picture such intent paints is capitalist in nature. Only when management realises that empowerment focuses not just on success of the company but also on development of its workforce potential, can it generate a sustained competitive edge in the market.

By its very nature, empowerment requires a coherent focus within the organisation. Managers’ realisation of importance of workforce and employees’ engagement through self-motivation and commitment are important factors that underpin the expectation for success via empowerment. It is therefore the responsibility of management to initiate conceptual restructuring of their company and shift the focus from command-and control model towards participative and reflective methods. In all of this, anything that vaguely resembles capitalist, Taylorist or Fordist should be steered clear off.

There is no set rule or rigid compartmentalisation that dictates the ways of achieving empowerment. However, the rules that run down in the background of any empowerment inducing technique must be governed by responsive and committed overall engagement, identification and removal of bureaucratic mentalities and environment that is conducive to motivation.


  1. Argyris, C. (1998) ‘Empowerment: The Emperor’s new clothes’, Harvard Business Review p.98.
  2. Barbara K. (2007) ‘What every leader needs to know about followers’ Harvard Business Review p.86.
  3. Beirne, M. (2006) Empowerment and Innovation: Managers, Principles and Reflective Practice, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. 1, 5, 21, 22.
  4. Beirne, M. (1999) ‘Managing to Empower? : A Healthy Review of Resources and Constraints’, European Management Journal, Vol 17, No 2, p.219, 220.
  5. Bower-Ferres, Susan (1975) ‘Loeb centre and its philosophy of Nursing’, American Journal of Nursing, Vol 75, No 5, p.810, 811.
  6. Conger J.A. and Kanugo R.N. (1988) ‘The Empowerment Process: Integrating theory and Practice, The Academy of Management Review, Vol 13, No 3, p.501,503.
  7. Hackman J.R, Pearce J.L and Oldham G. R. (1976) ‘Conditions under which employees respond positively to Enriched work’, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 61, No 4.
  8. Hales, C. (2000) ‘Management and Empowerment Programmes’ Work, Employment and Society, Vol 14, p 501,503.
  9. Herzberg, F. (2003) ‘One More Time: how do you motivate employees? , Harvard Business Review, June, p. 8, 10.
  10. Maslow A. H. (1998) ‘Abraham Maslow: the hierarchy of needs’ (1943), Corby: Institute of Management Innovation
  11. Noon, M. and Blyton, P. (1997) The Realities of Work, MacMillan: London, p.146-7.

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