so you want to empower your organization…?

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  • Phil Lowe Consultant, Harbridge Consulting Group Ltd, 3 Hanover Square, London W l R 9RD, UK

    There is a depressingly predictable pattern followed by the reactions to new organ- izational and management development initiatives. It begins as reports and articles appear which indicate that a particular type of initiative (benchmarking, performance- related pay, continuous improvement - take your pick) has produced spectacular results for a certain number of organizations. Like a terminally ill patient desperate for a miracle cure, strategists and developers rush to embrace the approach in question. After a time, when the spectacular results are not replicated in every company that tries it, the backlash begins, and suddenly everyone discovers- and broadcasts- the reasons

    so YOU want to empower your organization.. .?

    ractical guidance to the successful P implementation of empowerment is hard to find. This article poses a number of questions and indicates

    way forward for each.

    Why do you want empowerment? How do you communicate it? Where do you start? What are you willing to commit? What will you do about middle managers? What are the barriers to success? How do you know when you have it?

    The article draws from a new study of what British organizations really do about empowerment.

    why the initiative just doesnt work in practice.

    Empowerment is about due to reach this point in its life cycle. The term has been tossed around regularly since Peters and Waterman (1982) extolled the virtues of flexibility and responsiveness over 10 years ago. Many organizations have since entered into a no-holds-barred love affair with this enticing stranger. Some have discovered that the relationship requires an unsustainable investment if it is to work; others meet with resistance from within the organization which they feel unequipped to handle. Are we about to see a concerted backlash as greater numbers of organizations tell us

  • 2 78 P. Lowe

    that empowerment just doesnt work in practice?

    Harbridge Consulting Groups definition of empowerment: theprocess as a result of which individual employees have the autonomy, motivation and skills necessary to pevform theirjobs igv a way which provides them with a genuine sense of ownership and fulfilment while achieving shared organizational goals.

    To try and move away from the all- or-nothing approach which tempts com- mentators to dismiss empowerrnent as a fad, Harbridge Consulting Group undertook a survey in the autumn of 1993 to discover what UK organizations were actually doing with the topic: what they hoped to get out of empowerment, where the barriers arose in the organization, and what the effect was upon the organizations members.. From the surveys findings, a number of questions emerge which any organization considering an empowerment initiative should be asking.

    1. One common mistake is to see empowerment as an end in itself, rather than as the means to achieve something else. Those organizations that choose the former route will answer the question along the lines of To give people greater responsibility or To increase flexibi- lity at lower levels. Neither of these examples really answers the question: they tell us what effects empowerment has, but not what those effects are designed to achieve. Organizations that wish to improve their responsiveness to customers, or to improve the quality of their production processes, may decide that empowerment is the best means to achieve these ends. If it is not, the organization must seriously question the value of introducing such a vast and complex initiative.

    Why are we doing it?

    2. How do we communicate it? The relevant cliche to introduce at this point is actions speak louder than words.

    Organizations that tell their staff youre all empowered should not be surprised at the resounding hollow laughter which greets such an announcement. Many of the most empowered organizations in our survey never even use the term, preferring instead to concentrate on the ultimate aims of the initiative, and getting staff to see the benefits of the ends rather than the means. Remember also that empowerment is not just about changing the processes and behaviour of those in the front line: those who communicate must also model the new approaches they expect others to follow. This may mean running several empower the empowerer programmes for management.

    3. Where do we start?

    Start at the top is the received wisdom from many an organizational initiative, and there is no doubt that those at the top of the organization need to sing from the same hymn sheet if the initiative has any change of success. Once you get beyond the boardroom door, however, the question is whether that consistency should be translated into a blanket approach. This, of course, is contingent to a large extent on the size and structure of the organization, but empowerment is a high-risk process, and an organization of any size may want to select one part of the organization for a practice run. Certainly recent research from the US (see Beer, et al., 1990) suggests that this bottom up approach can pay lasting dividends in terms of a firm foundation for organizational change. It also means that senior management does not have to raise the stakes by attempting to implement an unknown quantity in a highly visible way.

    4. What are we prepared to commit?

    It is fairly clear that empowerment is expensive-partly in terms of direct cost, but certainly in terms of the opportunity cost of

    Journal of Strategic Change, October 1994

  • 2 79 Empowerment in British organizations

    Senior management does not have to raise the

    stakes by attempting to implement an unknown

    quantity in a highly visible way

    managers time as they grapple with new processes. At least two particular types of investment are likely to be necessary:

    0 In organizations in which failure has historically been seen as something to be punished, it will be impossible to engender a climate of risk-taking (which empowerment demands) without some visible commitment from the top that such behaviour is welcome. Of the 33 organizations we surveyed, not one operates a job guarantee scheme-not surprising perhaps in this belt-tightening commercial age, but likely to knock a big dent in the confidence of employees that empowerment is not a euphemism for cost-cutting. Organizations whose aim in empowering individuals is to collect suggestions and initiatives for quality improvement must be prepared to allocate resources to allow employees to call the organizations bluff. One company we spoke to introduced a suggestion programme which ultimately yielded significant cost savings, but in the early stages meant showing employees that suggestions like we need a fridge in our rest area would also result in action. Such a visible commitment is cheap in terms of the commitment it gains in return from employees.

    5 . ?%bat will we do about middle managers?

    Once the speeches about the challenging new role which managers will play in the new

    regime have been made, an organization then needs to grapple with the essential question: what is that new role going to be? Our survey identified some of the tasks that a post- empowerment manager might undertake, such as the coaching and mentoring of newly empowered staff, facilitating work teams and taking ownership of his or her staffs development; but there were several respondents who were less optimistic about the number of managers who might survive the process. As far as the managers themselves are concerned, 62% of organizations in our survey said that middle managers felt threatened by the process of empowerment.

    62% of organizations in our survey said that middle managers felt

    threatened by the process of empowerment

    How an organization tackles this area is once again dependent on the reasons why empowerment has been chosen in the first place; but any organization that wants to avoid resistance to the process must concentrate on helping managers to see what their new role is to be and how they personally will benefit.

    6 . Wbat are tbe barriers to saccess fur implementation?

    Many an empowerment initiative founders when it runs into unforeseen difficulties that the organization is unable or unwilling to face up to. We asked survey respondents to identrfy the barriers within their organizations to successful implementation of empower- ment. The three most commonly mentioned barriers-managers unwilling to let go, fear of the new and risk aversion-all relate to individual or cultural attributes. These subjective, value-based factors are the most likely sticking points of an empowerment


    Journal of Strategic Change, October 1994

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    policy, and all the systems and structural alterations in the world will be wasted if the culture of the organization and the values of its people are not attuned to the desired new ways. Such barriers as those identified here are also the most difficult to tackle, but can be pre-empted if the early stages of implementation are handled sensitively. If an organization can predict the points at which its initiative is likely to run into trouble- or if it simply expects that it will and is prepared for that point - that half of the battle may well be won.



    How wiGG we know when weve got there?

    many organizations really have the resources to commit to a process whose benefit is almost impossible to measure objectively? That is in effect what empower- ment demands. Few of the organizations that we spoke to felt able to identify the point at which they would have achieved their empowerment objectives - not necessarily because of an inability to measure, but be