< ReThinking Empowerment

ReThinking Empowerment

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Volume 42. No. 4. September-October, 1999. pp 56-57.

During the past few months, top executives of four companies have asked me to explain the meaning of empowerment. Why the sudden interest? The answer is that both technology and organizations are changing, and they require re-thinking the meaning of empowerment for both employees and customers.

One conversation with a CEO went something like this:

CEO: We used to talk about empowerment 8 years ago when I was a department manager. It essentially meant delegating, not micro-managing employees, letting them alone with the training and tools they need to do the job. Now it seems to have two meanings. One is similar to the meaning I remember. The other is very different. It has to do with people wanting more power. There are a number of groups inside this company that ask me to empower them by giving them a greater say over company policies like diversity, day care, flexible hours, you name it. What does the term empowerment really mean? Is it delegating or responding to demands?

MM: There are two traditional meanings of empowerment. One (which was first used in 1788 in the US Constitution) means investing authority in a role or a person. This kind of empowerment also implies acceptance of personal responsibility, a word also used for the first time in the Constitutional Convention in the sense of accountability. Even justices of the Supreme Court with life terms can be impeached.

The other meaning of empowerment means enablement.

CEO: What do those meanings have to do with a company, and why are we using a concept that goes back to 1788?

MM: First of all, we need to understand the difference in meanings. Empowerment as vested authority implies clarifying an employee's mandate and your expectations of his or her performance. The employee, in turn must be willing to accept responsibility and accountability or consequences. That’s where attempts at empowerment often fall short. If employees fear they will be punished for honest mistakes, they will protect themselves and only follow orders. This turns a business into a bureaucracy where people delegate upward when in doubt. Successful companies need people to share ideas and information, innovate, resolve customer problems on the spot, and participate in high performance teams. Increasingly, we need cross functional teams with empowered participants (see “Building Cross Functional Capability: What It Really Takes.” Research Technology Management, May-June, 1999.) In traditional bureaucracies, we managed employee energy. In an empowered organization, we need to manage both their energy and intelligence.

CEO: How can I be sure that empowered people will do the right thing?

MM: They must be enabled. If employees are not clear about your business logic, they are liable to do the wrong thing. For example, if your technical staff is not educated about business goals, they may drift off into work that does not connect to your strategy.

To create an empowered organization, you need a learning organization where people learn about the business, customer needs, what creates profit as well as learning from their mistakes.

Furthermore, employees are enabled by having the right tools and support when they need them. Your technical staff needs to understand what tools enable the front line, so they can develop them.

CEO: All this is not so different from the way I thought of empowerment in the past. Has anything recently changed?

MM: A great deal has changed. Three factors are causing companies to re-think empowerment. One is the impact of technology on work. Computers are taking over the formatted jobs. Those jobs that remain require empowered employees who are able to use information.

The second is that customers, not managers are now empowering employees. In “Making Many Penny’s”; (Research Technology Management, January-February 1997), I described an AT&T service technician named Penny who controlled a 50 million dollar corporate account, because the customer only wanted to do business with her. AT&T management didn't empower Penny. The customer did. Management’s role becomes support, passing on what Penny learns from the customer, and providing suitable rewards and recognition to make sure Penny doesn't leave and go to work for the competition.

CEO: That’s a good point. In a tight labor market, we are having a hard time hiring and holding onto good technicians. Penny’s are worth their weight in gold. Now, what is the third factor?”

MM: Again, it has to do with technology, but in a different way. Instead of empowering employees, we are now empowering the customer through the internet, while e-commerce is substituting customer empowerment for salespersons. The customer can buy books, stocks, clothes, cars, etc. directly and at the best competitive price. This is rapidly changing strategies and development priorities at many companies.

CEO: That is new. But what about all those employee groups who want to be empowered? Are they using the term correctly?

MM: They make empowerment sound like a zero sum game, meaning if they get more power, you will have less. There are two kinds of power: power over, meaning authority and power to, meaning enablement.

The challenge with these employee interest groups is to turn their demands into a way of improving the organization so that everyone is more enabled.

We need to think of the organization as a social system. This is different from a mechanical or organic system. In a mechanical system, the parts do not have individual purposes. In an organic system, like the human body, the parts have purposes ‹ the heart circulates blood through the system ‹ but they cannot exist outside of the system. In a social system, the parts ‹ people ‹ have their own purposes, and they can exist outside the system. To lead a social system effectively, we need to align people's purposes or values with those of the system so they want to do what needs to be done to make the system effective.

These employee groups are expressing their purposes. The better able we are to align them with corporate purposes, the more they will be motivated to help the company succeed. Day care centers, affirmative action, respect for differences - these are ways of aligning employee values with company goals. They build good relationships and increase everyone's power to achieve shared goals.

CEO: Less power over, more power to, for employees and customers. I can use that!

MM: It should better enable you to succeed.

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