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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Empowerment: What & How?

The Upanishads are said to contain four ‘Mahavakyas’ – great sayings. One of them is ‘Aham Brahmasmi’ – ‘I am that infinite’. What an assertion! It identifies the inmost consciousness of the individual with that of the supreme Spirit. This poses a question, of course, from a different perspective: why this comparison- “I am that”; why this longing for associating ourselves with what we think is the highest? The very living, which is a repetitive affair resulting in a kind of crudeness, brutality, making us dull, stupid, and insensitive, might have compelled seers of yore to search for a better meaning to life. Thus came the preaching: associate with god, the highest, for a quality of refinement which alone can afford meaning and a purpose to life. A kind of getting empowered, to experience a state of absolute, permanent, eternal peace. For this to become a reality, the longing for empowerment must come from within; else, empowerment remains a mere myth.

In the folklore of HRM, there is a grand belief that by distributing power across the organization, managements can improve employee productivity, quality of out put, and ultimate customer satisfaction.

To better appreciate the significance of this belief in enabling businesses to exhibit ‘customer-responsiveness’, let us take a look at a service-oriented industry like banking. The systems-dominated decision making process developed during the days of old management paradigm which is still practiced in a majority of the Indian banks, entrusted the decision-making to the top management, while keeping the front-line employees, who are directly interacting with customers day-in and day-out, shackled to their desks. And these are the employees who indeed have all the information and knowledge about the customers and the expertise to cater to the changing needs of customers promptly.

In a service-oriented industry where knowledge revolution is bringing in rapid changes, the old belief that top management alone could define priorities and monitor operations through management information systems has become an illusion. Secondly, it is also becoming increasingly evident that the old ‘systems-driven’ model is suppressing the individual initiatives. This increased awareness, particularly in the new economy businesses, is driving the executives towards the newfound ‘employee empowerment’.  And thus ‘empowerment’ promoted by the management gurus and marketed by consultants has become the ‘in thing’ of corporates.

What is Empowerment?

According to Oxford dictionary, ‘empowerment’ means: “the action of empowering someone” or “the state of being empowered”. In the organizational context, ‘empowerment’ is sharing of power with employees under the hope that it enhances their feelings of self-efficacy.

It is a process by which managers help their subordinates acquire and use the power needed to make decisions that impact not only themselves but also their work and in turn the organizational performance. There is of course a profound difference between ‘employee-empowerment’ and ‘abdication’ of responsibilities by executives.

Employee empowerment should invariably be preceded by creating an initiative which not only encourages learning among employees but also ensures continuous self-improvement, coupled with attempts to build stronger relationships across the organization. The management must also shift its focus from ‘systems-driven’ administration to ‘people’ and the growth in their skill-profile. Firms, instead of relying on traditional control systems, must deploy key people for specific jobs and communicate to them complex ideas, foster transfer of knowledge through personal relationships and influence their behavior by creating a context. Else, any initiative for empowering employees may remain a mere fad and the much expected transformation in the employees may remain a tantalizing mirage.

How People Get ‘Empowered’

Empowerment is not something that is given but more of being sought by an individual/an employee – all by himself. It is only the power which is internalized that can reflect in an individual’s behavior, otherwise, it would remain as a coat of paint on an inanimate object like wall. A ‘given’ power does not exhibit any transformation in the workforce. Indeed, both the giver and taker of the power must have immense faith in and longing for performing from a platform of ‘empowerment’. Then only empowerment becomes truly functional. And this happens only when there is a commitment on the part of employees towards organizational initiatives. Here, commitment is not a mere concept of human relations. It is fundamental to our very thinking about the business/organization – its economics, strategy, financial controls, business processes, and all that goes with it. It is only commitment that activates the mind and generates action towards improving organizational efficiency. Therefore, however strong a management is in empowering its employees, nothing substantial can be achieved without active commitment of employees to any organizational initiative and empowerment is no exception.

Human beings, as Chris Argyris observed, are known to exhibit ‘commitment’ in two different ways: external commitment and internal commitment and both have a relevance to the workplace. People driven by ‘external commitment’ tend to comply with whatever directives that the organization issues to them. It is always found that people, be it on the personal front or at workplaces, tend to be less committed to a task on which they have no control. This is more predominant at workplaces, where management is known to single-handedly define everything that includes work conditions, work priorities, ways and means of work processing et al. In all such situations employees would remain externally committed, since all that they could do is, just do what is expected of them. Simply put, the behavior of employees in all such situations becomes a mere reflection of contractual compliance. Hence, in all such organizations, where management defines tasks, the required behavior to perform the task, and sets performance goals, employees tend to exhibit ‘external commitment’.

Box 1: Employee Commitment: Differences
External Commitment
Internal Commitment
Tasks are defined by superiors.
Individual employees define tasks.
So, the behavior required to perform the given task is in turn defined by the superiors.
It is the individual who chooses the appropriate behavior to execute the defined task.
It is the management which defines performance goals.
Both management and employees jointly define the performance goals and hence they tend to be more challenging to the employees.
The importance of the goal is defined by management. Hence, employee behavior is more towards compliance with the given direction.
Since employees have a say in defining the importance of the goals, their behavior can tend to be more of an entrepreneur.
Source: Adapted from “Empowerment: the Emperors New Clothes” by Chris Argyris, Harvard Business Review, May – June 1998.

As against this, organizations that allow individuals to define tasks, identify the required behavior to perform the task, and where management and employees jointly define the performance growth rate required and its importance, are sure to generate internal commitment to the desired extent. Internal commitment thus becomes ‘participatory’ besides being a close ally of empowerment. So, managements must attempt to involve employees in defining organizational mission, objectives, and ways and means of accomplishing them, etc., so that it can generate internal commitment extensively across the organization. There is however, a limit for internal commitment as there is a limit in empowering every employee in the organization. Secondly, empowerment materializes only when it is sought by an employee driven by ‘internal commitment’. Given these constraints, it is all the more essential to make employees ‘internally committed’ to the organizational initiatives – be it accomplishment of corporate goals, or empowering the employees through proper selection, induction and motivation duly accompanied by honest commitment of the top leadership  for implementing the ‘change’ they are envisaging. Any amount of infusion by external means like organization granting it etc., remains a mere preaching and thus remains dysfunctional.

-         GRK Murty


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