Pros and cons of empowered workforce

Published March 17, 2003

Businesses now face an increasingly complex and uncertain environment which has generated a demand for the development of more flexible forms of organization, the strengthening of corporate culture and the determination to make continuous improvements in the quality of products and services.

The recent interest in the development and application of the principles of employee “empowerment” by companies can be traced to the growing opinion of senior managers that companies have reached the ultimate limits of Taylorism. A key method of improving productivity and of meeting the challenges of the new environment seems to be the empowerment of employees by allowing them to express their personal interest, autonomy, free will and desire.

To develop this flexible response to the new environmental challenges, managers must forfeit their long-cherished and, at times abusive, privileges and move towards a new form of organization where the employee is seen as an active and willing participant in the organization. Thus businesses will increasingly see the need to switch focus to become “people centred”.

Peter Drucker has suggested that management is now entering a third phase of development. This phase is characterized by the shift from a command-and-control approach to facilitate-and-empower — a trend towards an information-based organization which relies upon teams and task forces to tackle problems and exploit opportunities together with greater self-discipline and individual responsibility for managing relationships and communications.

The merits of bureaucratic structure and hierarchical control have been challenged, in new management thinking. The traditional structures are criticized for their cost, lack of responsiveness and deadening effect upon employee initiative and productivity.

To make our hierarchies function properly, it is essential to place the emphasis on accountability for getting work done. Authority is a secondary issue and flows from accountability in the sense that there should be just that amount of authority needed to discharge the accountability.

Most crucially, traditional practices are seen to constrain the speed and quality of responsiveness to changing conditions. Thus, there has emerged the new idea of a management based on a leaner, more creative organization which depends upon the commitment of all staff to shared values to generate an adaptive form of organization. Command is replaced by consent, as the key to corporate success is the development of employees capable of responding, with the minimum of managerial direction, to emergent opportunities and threats. In the prevailing trend for managers, more radical voices are sometimes heard calling for a revolution; suppression of managerial rules that degrade people; liberation of intelligence from the grip of the inhuman Taylorian machine; disregard of now ossified top-down hierarchical authority; alienation from work is at the very heart of the problem of the worker’s commitment and motivation, renunciation of a management which renders society unmanageable.

After all, what else is being asked if not the establishment of working conditions that will awaken in the employee the desire to cooperate, to create where the employee can feel and act as a thinking, speaking, and questioning subject. This would be the place where the employee could find his or her essential availability, interest, and creativity.

At the present time the way most employees describe the tasks they perform everyday, is not linked to the purpose of the greater enterprise in which they take part. Most see themselves within a ‘system’ over which they have little or no influence. As a result they feel lost in the organization or consider themselves as prisoners of the very systems they are supposed to manage, thereby, fail to achieve organizational goals and eventually fall under the category of the surplus staff.

The use of machines and even robots seems to have reached certain limits, obsolescence of equipment is becoming more and more rapid, and the human mind’s inventiveness and flexibility are more than ever key factors in greater profitability.

Today, the case of empowerment comes from business needs that are central to the success of a company: fast response to customers, strong cross-functional links at multiple levels, and the need to take opportunities that are too local, too fleeting or too many in number to permit a centralized decision-making process.

In order for empowerment to take root and thrive, organizations must encourage these conditions:

1. Participation

2. Innovation

3. Access to information

4. Accountability

But these conditions are insufficient without the right kind of leadership.

The advantage of an empowered workforce: When an organization’s overall direction is clear and its overall structure and resource base are adequate to its needs then an empowered workforce with responsibility and authority for most day-to-day decision can have the following advantages.

Better customer service: Not only will employees in contact with customers be able to make decisions themselves and provide an appropriate response, they will also give the customer the (correct) impression that the customer is dealing with someone who has power and influence in the organization.

Flexibility: Empowered employees are ready to respond to changes and opportunities as they arise.

Speed: When employees know responsibility for outcomes rests with them, they can take action swiftly and locally to solve problems.

Formation of important cross-functional links: Without having to raise most operational issues up the hierarchy, employees are free to make the horizontal connections appropriate to their business. Cross-functional teams can form and re-form as necessary without the say-so of top management. Because these links are not officially resources, they will tend to be efficient. Benefits come not from being on the teams itself but from what the team contributes to the employee’s regular work. If a link ceases to add value, the participants will drop it.

Morale: Many employees will feel better about their work if they know that they have more control over it. Individuals’ high morale, if widely shared, can also give an organization a positive quality that is often visible to outsiders, such as customers, and is reciprocated by them, resulting in a feedback loop of increasing positive feeling.

Compensation for limited career paths: Many employees in organizations now face the prospect of limited advancement, given recent demographic trends and the tendency toward flatter hierarchies. If promotion is unavailable, companies need to find other ways of increasing employees’ responsibilities and rewards.

Broadening their responsibility and authority is one way to accomplish this. Empowered employees may find their jobs challenging and rewarding enough that promotion ceases to be their only criterion for remaining loyal to the organization. Mistake encouraged: Empowered employees’ mistakes are considered as opportunities for coaching and guidance rather than opportunities to punish.

What to look for: How can you tell if a workforce is empowered? Statements by top managers to that effect are rarely an adequate guide. The crucial indicators are the way employees interact with customers, managers and each other. Typical behaviours among employees that are evident within empowered workforce include the following.

1. They show an awareness of the goals and strategy of the organization. They take an interest beyond their functional speciality, paying attention to company publications, press reports, and financial and competitive data. They discuss their work in terms of how it fits into the company’s overall mission.

2. They take personal responsibility for the outcomes of their work, showing by their behaviour that they feel responsible for the results of what they do.

3. They continually monitor their own performance, looking for indications of quality and showing a concern for how they are doing on all performance dimensions. They correct and improve their performance without being asked to do so.

4. They seek additional resources when they do not have what they need to perform well.

5. They take initiatives to help people in other areas to improve their performance.

Disadvantages: Potential for chaos. The same local action that can lead to increased customer service can also lead to conflicting messages being given to customers and across departments. One employee may be willing to go further than the next in taking care of a particular need, leaving customer with different levels of service. Departments may evolve different policies on everything from office hours to the choice of word processors.Sometimes these conflicts will have to be resolved by statements of company policy. However, the more often this happens, the more the distribution of authority is under-cut.

Lack of clarity: The flexibility and speed that result from distributed decision making are likely to lead to a lack of clarity about who is responsible for what. Job definitions become less useful and people often find themselves under more pressure because there are fewer limits to their responsibilities. A need for “more breathing room” is a common complaint of employees in empowered organizations.

Breakdown of hierarchical control: The emergence of more cross-functional links often signals the breakdown of the formal hierarchy for the carrying out of many decisions. Control ends up being shared not only across hierarchical levels but across functional boundaries as well. Cross-functional teams may do an excellent job of problem-solving (although this is by no means assured) but managers with ultimate responsibility for functional units are likely to feel a real loss of control, which they may reject as too risky.

Demoralization: Although empowerment seems attractive to many people, not every employee wants the responsibility that comes with it. Managers have a habit of assuming everyone is like them — desirous of more power and the concomitant rewards. This is only true of some people; others would prefer not to be burdened with additional authority and the decisions that come with it. These people may become seriously demoralized if they are forced to take a more active role in the management of their organization.

Conclusion: The new concept of ‘empowerment’ brings more human aspects into picture, which follows what is called the “democratic Taylorism” model. Instead of Taylorism, these new methods and standards are determined by work teams themselves: workers are taught how to time their own jobs with a stop-watch, compare alternative procedures to determine the most efficient one, document the standard procedure to ensure that everyone can understand and implement it, and identify and propose improvements in that procedure. At any given time, the task of standardized work analysis might be delegated to a team leader or a team member, but every one understands the analysis process and can participate in it. K. Grahame Walker, as quoted in Industry Week (Nov.18, 1991), says he advocated doing away with the term empowerment in favour of another word — participation, contribution, involvement, or responsibility. Why? Because, Walker says, some employees define empowerment as doing what they want, when, where, how, why, and if they want.

However, what I have seen in reality is that employee empowerment is a fake. People are told that they have power and responsibility, but in fact, in most of the decisions they are dependent on their boss, which eventually lowers morale,erodes leadership credibility, and creates hostility and opposition.

The underpinning argument is that today we constantly talk about downsizing, de-layering, rightsizing, flattening, business process re-engineering as a cost saving devises but with our existing hierarchical and bureaucratic system, are we really achieving our cost saving targets. I feel that with the introduction of the above-mentioned buzzwords in our today’s business strategy we are not doing any justification to our customers who keep complaining about the service standards due to the shortage of, and inadequately empowered staff, which hinders effective performance in world characterized by perpetual novelty and change. Only the true application of the principles of employee empowerment can enable businesses to cope with the new environment.



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