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Friday, May 20, 2011

Empowerment: How Organizations can Nurture it

As a first step towards empowering employees, management must eradicate the legacy, if any, of authoritarian supervision, which makes an employee genuinely feel that he has no control over what he is doing. Secondly, organizations must bear in mind that there would be inconsistencies in nurturing empowerment in the organization owing to co-existence of ‘top-down controls’ and initiatives for empowering people and hence manage them effectively. Thirdly, there are certain conditions-precedent that must be fulfilled for empowerment to take roots, which are as under:

Potential ‘Empowerees’ Must Be Committed

Freedom aggravates frustration, for freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual. As freedom encourages a multiplicity of attempts, it unavoidably increases failure and in turn frustration. Unless an employee has the aptitude to make something of the given freedom, it becomes an irksome burden. The question is: Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual? That is precisely the reason why employees tend to avoid individual responsibility or try to be free from freedom. Indeed employees tend to prefer equality for it affords anonymity; to be one flower in the garland – one flower not distinguishable from the others. The underlying belief being: no one can then point them out, measure them against others or expose their inadequacies, inferiority, etc. Hence, organizations must prepare the employees by imparting required levels of training and development, so that they can confidently accept responsibility and thereby seek empowerment. As long as acceptance for shouldering responsibilities is lacking, empowerment simply remains a superficial exercise.

Information Sharing

One of the Mahavakyas — great sayings of Upanishadic-literature is ‘Prajnanam Brahma’ — ‘Intelligence is Brahma’. It is intelligence that makes one feel empowered. Organizations must attempt to share their knowledge about business, business environment, competitors’ strategies, counter strategies, etc., with all the employees, so as to make them understand the issues that warrant management and thus acquire confidence to address them with the necessary wisdom. It is the ‘Prajnanam’ which helps employees understand the choices they need to make about their own level of commitment and the limits of their empowerment. It is only exercising the empowerment with the accompanying knowledge that ensures continuity and sustainability of organizational growth.

In one of the interviews[1] with Harvard Business Review, Roger Sant, Chairman and Dennis Bakke, CEO of AES Corporation – the global electricity company based in Arlington, Virginia – were asked what managerial practices they put in force to make empowerment work. Bakke said: “there is the incredibly important matter of free and frequent information flow… We have very few secrets at AES. Even the details of potential acquisition decisions are shared… All financial and market information is widely circulated.” He believes that it is the only way to make employees “business people” who can make good decisions.

To a question – “Can you think of an industry where empowerment is not applicable or appropriate for safety or regulatory reasons?” Sant said: “There are life and death decisions in our work all the time… But empowerment makes it safer – not riskier. If a team feels it is fully accountable, it will take more responsibility than if it feels that its boss is accountable. At the end of the day, the team members aren’t going to say ‘it is not my job’.” He also hastens to add that “empowerment without values is not empowerment.”

Replacement of Traditional Hierarchy Must Be Gradual

To nurture empowerment, managements must create more teams for self management where empowered employees can find space to make operational decisions and enjoy the outcome of it as ‘actualization’ of their personalities. However, such transition from ‘top-down control’ system to decentralized management owing to empowerment of employees must proceed gradually; else there is a danger of derailment of organizational functioning. To accomplish this, organizations can examine and adopt the model developed by Jay A. Conger and Rabindra N. Kanungo (Figure) with necessary modifications, if any for empowering employees.

Figure: Five Stage Model for Initiating Empowerment

Source: Jay A. Conger and Rabindra N. Kanungo, “The Empowerment Process: Integrating Theory & Practice”, Academy of Management Review, (July 1988): 475.
- GRK Murty

[1] Organizing for Empowerment: An Interview with AES’s Roger Sant and Dennis Bakke, Harvard Business Review, January – February 1999.


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