In theory ... Empowerment

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak.

Power to the people! That's what 'empowerment' is all about. By devolving decision-making power from managers to all employees, an organisation is at its most productive.

Why? Because everyone has a level of control over their work that is missing in more formally structured organisations. The theory goes that, if they feel in charge, an employee assumes a level of responsibility and initiative that is missing in more dictatorial workplaces. The outcome is a self-motivating workforce that always wants to do what's best for the organisation.

The theory's most important proponent was Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, who wrote a book called When Giants Learn to Dance: Mastering the Challenge of Strategy, Management and Careers in the 1990s. She argued that to succeed in modern business large organisations needed to free their workers from calcifying managerial hierarchies.

It was Kanter's belief that the new world of the internet would give self-motivated individuals access to the knowledge and networks they would need in order to act responsibly and take decisions for themselves while at work.

All well and good, but where does that leave the third sector manager? Unfortunately, in common with the rest of the working world, the average charity worker with average levels of motivational mojo doesn't look to do so. If offered the chance to increase their responsibilities, the response is normally: "I'd rather pull out my own teeth." The other problem is that most managers don't like having their decision-making powers divested into the hands of their underlings. Where's the glory in that? And what if they are better than you?

Managers therefore face a difficult balance between allowing their team members to feel autonomous and wanting to do more, while at the same time keeping them under control. Impossible? Yes.

 -  Emma De Vita is editor of the books pages on Management Today


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