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Journal of European Industrial Training

What is Empowerment Anyway?

John O. Burdett

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John O. Burdett, (1991),"What is Empowerment Anyway?", Journal of European Industrial Training, Vol. 15 Iss 6 pp.
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efore empowerment can become a reality

we must properly understand what this
fashionable term means both philosophically and in practice.

What is
John O. Burdett

Journal of European Industrial Training, Vol. 15 No. 6, 1991, pp. 23-30,

MCB University Press, 0309-0590

Empowerment Control versus Influence

It seems that each decade spawns not only a litany of new
problems and opportunities but a language tailored in some
ways to meet the challenge. The 1960s gave us clerical
work measurement and job enrichment; the 1970s
downsizing and quality of worklife; the 1980s leadership
and culture. Already the language of the 1990s is framed,
indeed attendance at conference, management meetings
or discussions with consultants seem strangely empty
without the by now mandatory reference to the elixir of
the 1990s employee empowerment.
Of course the term empowerment is not new, it has been
around in its current usage for the best part of a decade.
On the other hand it is a term that seems highly
appropriate to the spirit of the 1990s. One only has to
refer to Central and Eastern Europe, for example, to see
the spirit of empowerment unfolding before our eyes. In
a sense this was also true of the management "tasks"
that have gone before; sensitivity was a term very
appropriate to catching the mood of the 1960s, quality of
life the ethos of the 1970s, and who could deny that
leadership represents a surprisingly accurate metaphor
of the generation so dominant in the 1980s?
Equally important, one should hesitate before underestimating the impact of management thinking on society
itself[l]. In fact, when the history of the 20th century is


written, it is exactly the advances in organisational theory

and practice carried through in Western industrial nations
that will rank very high in terms of the forces that have
been major catalysts in bringing about the movement of
democratisation in Central Europe. No the concern is
not the concept of empowerment itself or the ideas behind
it, the concern is much simpler: when we talk of
empowerment do we all mean the same thing? Perhaps,
in a more provocative vein: Have those who throw the
term empowerment around so easily really thought
through what is involved? Is empowerment destined to
be another buzz word that we will all quickly overdose
on? Or, more hopefully, is it destined to be a language
tool not only philosophically but relevant in practical terms
to the challenges at hand?
First, the term empowerment itself is somewhat elusive.
At face value one could assume that it has something to
do with giving power to those who do not have it for
the most part those at lower levels of our organisations.
The problem here is that people at lower levels of the
organisation do have power[2]. In fact they have
tremendous power. As individuals, and more often as a
team, they have the power to work enthusiastically or not,
to take an interest in the company or not, to watch out
for quality or not. It is not that employees do not have
power but that all too often the power they have is
channelled in such a way that the aims and goals of the
organisation and those of employees are in conflict.
The second notion of power that has to be explored is
embodied in the traditional approach to power which
assumes that if someone gets more power someone else
must lose power. It is exactly this notion and the insecurity
behind it that prevents many executives, and often those
at senior levels, from encouraging and supporting
employee involvement initiatives. One might also suggest
that it is a similar fear that all too often inhibits union
representatives from supporting initiatives that give more
organisationally directed responsibility to their members.
The traditional notion of power is rooted in a somewhat
limited perspective of power, i.e. power is only given out
at the discretion of those in authority. A more pragmatic
understanding of power recognises that there are two
primary sources: that is to say power legitimately passed
by the organisation to an individual, or a team, down the
hierarchical chain; and power which employees take
as a result of opportunity provided by the organisation or
indeed take arbitrarily. The extent and nature of the
second scenario lie ultimately with the scope of the
opportunity at hand, and the degree to which individuals
wish to exercise their option to utilise that power.
In pursuing this line of thought a focal question might be:
Does a manager in pushing decision making to those at
lower levels in the organisation dilute his/her control? The
response in part is: Control of what? For whilst on one



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level the manager's ability to direct the actions of

subordinates is diluted by way of direct "hands on"
control, by evoking self-management at a subordinate level
the manager is substituting a form of rigid
(punishment/reward) control for one that rests in large
measure, not on controlling the individual, but in
influencing and orchestrating the context in which the
decisions are made, e.g. values, degree of trust, vehicles
for generating feedback, introduction of structured learning
Empowerment is at Heart a Practical Issue
In exploring a broader, and arguably more subtle approach
to leadership, organisations are doing no more than
recognising that organisational complexities, a need for
responsiveness, a redistribution of access to information,
and talent short-falls, have changed the social dynamics
of the workplace. As usual, leadership is, at its core, about
Ultimately, of course, success depends in large measure
in moving empowerment from a concept to a practical
reality. This leads one quickly to the question: What does
empowerment actually look like? In one sense it is not
dissimilar to the Supreme Court Judge in the USA who,
when discussing pornography, said, "I might not be able
to define it, but I know it when I see it". Although what
has been described as empowerment takes different
forms, the fundamental spirit of what is involved can be
seen in these four examples of how a superior can handle
a particular situation.
The Situation

It is ten minutes before noon. The hourly workers in the

loading dock are preparing to break for lunch. Without
notice, a major delivery of materials arrives. The problem:
the material is highly unstable and must be unloaded and
stored immediately. The dilemma: how to approach the
workers and explain that they must work through their
lunch break.
Option 7. The Supervisor as Administrator

The supervisor acts mainly as an administrator and

instructs the workers what must be done. The
communication is primarily one-way, and the supervisor
reinforces his/her authority through fear and a strongly
enforced disciplinary procedure.

Option 3. The Supervisor as Facilitator

The supervisor, acting as a facilitator, is building on a

greater awareness of the external environment. The work
team, for example, are well-informed as to the threat of
foreign competition. In fact, most of them have been laid
off at least once and are prepared to accept that job
security and the competitiveness of the company are
strongly linked. The supervisor recognises the benefit of
participation as a result of the positive changes brought
about through regular quality circle meetings. The
supervisory style is best described as supervisor-centred
problem solving. The supervisor outlines the problem and
asks for suggestions. In particular, he/she recognises the
need to listen, builds on the ideas of others and
understands that it is important to give positive
reinforcement once the job is successfully completed.
Option 4. The Supervisor as Coach

The role of coach represents a major shift in the

supervisor/employee relationshp. The employees visit the
firm's customers regularly, and better understand the need
for quality and timely delivery. There is a far higher level
of interest in the company's profitability, not only because
the company has instituted an employees annual report,
but because the employees are now paid a team bonus
based on a blend of the team's performance and the overall
division results. Additionally, considerable training in
teamwork has taken place. It is also understood that
initiative is strongly encouraged and that mistakes are an
inevitable dimension of the team's learning and growth.
The materials problem is dealt with directly by the work
group without reference to the supervisor. The supervisor
is informed during the course of the afternoon of the
initiative taken by the work group. Time is set aside to
discuss how problems of this kind can be avoided in the
future. The supervisor's authority is based on a high level
of mutual trust. The chemistry behind this relationship
is the sense of ownership felt by the employees and the
tight/loose management approach of the supervisor.
The four approaches represent less of a hierarchical than
an evolutionary change in the supervisory process (see
Figure 1). At each stage the supervisor's role changes
as does his/her power base. The supervisory scenarios
outline the transition from administrator where the
supervisor relies heavily on formal control, to the role of
coach where control gives way to influence and where the
supervisor acts primarily as a learning resource.

Option 2. The Supervisor as Sales Person

The supervisor uses a sales approach. Having attended

numerous human relations programmes, he/she knows the
importance of explaining not only what must be done, but
why the materials must be unloaded immediately. The
supervisor understands that the basis of authority is
respect. However, should a problem arise, the disciplinary
procedure is always close at hand.

The transition described, however desirable, does not

happen without drive from the top and an organisation
climate that underscores the values implicit in an
environment encouraging empowerment in conjunction
with a realignment of the expectations of both employees
and those in management roles. In our experience, three
issues are critical to an understanding of empowerment;


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Stages of Supervisory Development


information technology, to push informed decision making

to the lowest level of the organisation, make the
employee's ability to think the company's most valuable
untapped resource.
If they are to tap this resource, supervisors must first
understand their own power base. They must become
familiar not just with power derived from the job but in
the potential they, as individuals, have to influence the way
things are done. Supervisors must start to explore the
full range of colours they carry on their palette [4].
Traditional roles, dependent upon authority, position and
institutional power, can be complemented by the
supervisor's capacity to influence decisions and set the
context for change through collaboration, coalition,
association and referral power (see Figure 2). The
supervisor should explore options for maintaining control
not through reward and punishment, although they remain
options, but through the degree of respect the subordinate
has to him/her (referent power) as an individual.

issues that are fundamental in creating the context for

involvement to flourish:
(1) empowerment embodies a significant shift in the
supervisor's power base;
(2) management of boundaries becomes an imperative;
(3) the organisation must strive to create a learning
Each of these will be examined in turn.
A Shift in the Supervisor's Power Base
Empowerment necessitates that supervisors understand
their role while, at the same time, working hard to move
from a traditional approach based on punishment-reward
to one rooted in mutuality and consensus [3]. Part of the
difficulty lies with the concern that the average supervisor,
whose orientation is short-term and, for the most part,
action-oriented, fails to recognise the relationship between
power and effectiveness.
In the traditional work environment the supervisor relies
heavily on the authority that comes with the job. The
resulting inherent imbalance in power distribution causes
employees, in turn, to seek informal areas of influence
over the factors impacting on their work environment.
Traditional supervisory approaches lie rooted in
assumptions that, in some respects, separate the
employees' ability to think from their capacity to carry
out tasks. Tasks more often than not are broken down
into cycle times, often measured in minutes. The advent
of a more competitive marketplace, a need for
organisations continuously to improve quality whilst
reducing costs, together with the ability, as a result of

Organisations that fail to create

an empowered environment are
sowing the seeds of their own
In the four supervisory scenarios outlined above the
supervisor's power base evidences changes at each stage:
Option 1 Strong dependence on authority, positional
and institutional power.
Option 2 Strong endorsement of authority, positional
and institutional power in conjunction with
a degree of referent power. To sell his/her


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ideas it is important that the supervisor be

respected and even liked. No such concern
exists in Option 1.
Option 3 In moving to a problem-solving mode the
supervisor moves from a position of
restricting information to one of giving and
sharing information. As a result, authority
positional and institutional power becomes
less important than the supervisor's
knowledge, the respect the team has for
him/her, and the ability of the supervisor to
build a collaborative environment.
Option 4 In the role of the coach, the supervisor
moves away significantly from authority,
positional and institutional power to one that
not only builds a collaborative environment
but links the team synergistically to others
both within and external to the organisation.
The implications for the organisation and the supervisor in
redefining the basis of power are significant a significance
not limited to the host organisation. The need to improve
customer satisfaction on a continuous basis, for example,
has spawned numerous forms of strategic alliance. Such an
alliance can encompass not only team selling, and multicompany problem-solving teams, but closer relationships in
terms of information exchange[5] and strategic direction[6].
Organisations that fail to create an empowered
environment are, in a real sense, sowing the seeds of their
own destruction. "Outside-in"[7] as opposed to "insideout" management blurs the interface between customer
and supplier which, in turn, suggests that where traditional
thinking fails to give way to more flexible multidimensional
relationship driven uses of power, the organisation's ability
to service the customer is severely limited.

Boundaries Management
In thinking about change, there is a tendency for
organisations to restrict the thinking to "big picture"
issues. From our own experience, the need to think
strategically has to be balanced with a focus on detail and
attention to issues such as job design.
Historically, what is expected of an employee has been
framed in two ways. The job description traditionally
outlines authority or responsibility while the MBO process
defines the specific outputs to be achieved.
The logic behind this approach has been both logical and
pragmatic: logical in the sense that outlining authority and
responsibility goes some way to limiting job overlap;
pragmatic in that control is obviously facilitated by a specific
determination of what has to be achieved, and by when.
This dual approach of job description and objective setting
has been the centrepiece of the management process

since the golden age of management in the immediate

post-Second World War period. As an aside, the analysis
implied within the scope of the job description/objective
setting exercise has been especially seductive to those
developing a rationale for compensation systems and, more
recently, as a basis for establishing a database to use for
comparative purposes in job evaluation/pay parity
It is also reasonable to state that the concepts embodied
by the traditional job description approach have served
organisations, for the most part, extremely well. The
dilemma being that the utility of the job description approach
has been, for the most part, a product of an environment
where institutional, positional and authority-based power
have been the norm and the environment stable.
A good place to evaluate the worth of this traditional
approach and the impact on empowerment is to consider
what actually happens in the work environment. The
traditional approach to organisation design, which is based
on a presumption that jobs interface much like the bricks
in a wall (see Figure 3) not only limits the opportunity
for employees to expand their scope of activity, but
strongly mitigates against it.
Personal experience shows that in an empowered
environment there are two critical components of the job
(see Figure 4). The first is the core activities which are
those that must be performed successfully if the employee
is to achieve the basic purpose of the job. The second
is an area of flexibility based on the employee's
competency which can be expanded into. This dimension
of job flex describes that area of the job where initiative
is not only possible but, within an empowered
environment, actively encouraged[8, p. 129].

3. The "Job Fence" in Traditional Bounda



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Boundaries Management in an
Environment Stressing Employee


the need to encourage employees to move outside the

core represent a barrier to empowerment initiatives.
Second, the performance reward systems must both
create space for employees to expand their influence/
contribution base while concurrently rewarding employees
for these outputs even though they may lie outside the
agreed objectives. Third, the objective-setting process
must take place within the context of a collaborative power
base where the mutuality of benefit and congruence of
power is a critical element. Finally, managers/supervisors
and employees at all levels must be given the skills
necessary to operate in an environment where
confrontation and manipulation gives way to social
contracting and mutual support.

Building a Learning Organisation

A considerable amount has been written about building
a learning organisation; unfortunately far too little is
understood about how to make it happen. The relationship
between empowerment and learning is, however, obvious
and significant and, as such, not something that should
be a secondary priority.

Job overlap, rather than being avoided at all costs, becomes

an opportunity for information-sharing, synergy and
innovation. It is also the case, from personal experience,
that the higher in the organisation one goes, the greater
is the added value derived through synergistic job overlap.
The empowered view of job boundaries also fits in very
well with experience in managing change in a turbulent
complex environment. Running a business is no longer
the prerogative of one super-smart individual, but the
outcome of a strong team. Similarly, at middle
management level demands to improve cycle times, drive
down costs and improve productivity, in tandem with a
need to build a strong constituency, make the role of
supervisor one of team leader and coach, not driver and

Much has been written about

building a learning
The fallout from an empowered approach to boundaries
management is far-reaching. First, job descriptions that
focus on the core elements of the job but fail to recognise

unfortunately far too

little is understood about
how to make it
Mumford emphasises that an organisation can be said to
be facilitating learning when it [9]:
encourages managers to identify their own learning
provides a regular review of performance and
learning for the individual;
encourages managers to set challenging goals for
provides feedback on both performance and
achieved learning;
reviews the performance of managers in helping
to develop others;
assists managers to see learning opportunities on
the job;
seeks to provide new experiences from which
managers can learn;
provides or facilitates the use of training on the job;
tolerates some mistakes provided managers try to
learn from them;
encourages managers to review, conclude and plan
learning activities;



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challenges managers to challenge the traditional

ways of doing things.
Senge[10, p. 6], on the other hand, identifies five factors
in his research that both individually and synergistically
provide a vital dimension in building organisations that can
truly learn, that can continually enhance their capacity
to realise their highest aspirations:
systems thinking;
personal mastery;
mental models;
building a shared vision;
team learning.
As usual, building a learning culture is about hard work
and doing a number of often small things, superbly. In the
author's own work within Lawson Mardon Group, where
the company has been striving to create the sort of
organisation Mumford and Senge describe, several issues
specifically related to empowerment have been pivotal.

It is hard to move far in attempting to orchestrate

empowerment initiatives without considering the issue of
control. Managers at all level are loathe to give up what
is, for many, the security blanket of a command control
style of management for one dependent on consensus and
influence. Empowerment, however, does not necessitate
giving up control but changing the way control is exercised.
The implications for successful leadership are, as a result,
profound. Those in leadership roles have to learn how to


Integrating Culture into Strategy

manage the context rather than the individual; understand

how to empower through a common vision; and manage
change by extending to those involved in change ownership
of the process that is intended to bring about change.
Leadership that empowers must emphasise strategy but,
perhaps even more important, must enunciate
organisational values through, in particular, personal
actions that encourage behaviour such that the
organisation's culture supports the strategy. Leadership,
in this context, moves from managing things to generating
insight into the art of the possible, building capacities to
facilitate opportunistic action and integrating strategy and
culture as a basic premise of planning for future action
(see Figure 5).

The relationship between empowerment and structure is,

although at times subtle, pervasive.
Macey[ll], in his review of more than 800 studies of
several thousand workplaces with productivity
improvement projects, found that the most common
workplace changes were towards flat lean structures,
multi-skilled employees, and team configurations. The
relationship between structure and effectiveness has been
drawn out in numerous studies. Elliot Jacques, in
particular, emphasises the relationship between time-span
of discretion and level in the organisation. His own research
has led him to believe that all but the largest organisations
should have no more than four levels under the Managing

The relationship between

empowerment and structure
is pervasive
The implications for empowerment are that additional tiers
or strata in the organisation not only filter the two-way
flow of information but act in a way to prevent decision
making (empowerment) being pushed as far down the
organisation as possible. That strata dilute empowerment
is inevitable in that additional levels are put in place for
one or two reasons: either to de-risk the decisions of
others, or to move information across the structure. Far
from minimising risk, the more likely probability is
delay[13]. Similarly, where the power base moves from
one dependent upon the organisation to one requiring a
strong internal constituency and extensive external
network, the "information passer" role quickly becomes
If the impact of structure is important at a micro level it
is no less so when looking at the organisation overall. As


Senge points out, the learning organisation will increasingly

emphasise a "localised" business philosophy[10, p. 287].
Handy makes a similar point when, in describing a Federal
organisation, he underscores that the drive and energy
must come not from the centre but from the parts [8, p.

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Morgan, in his public seminars, uses the analogy of the

spider plant to describe "localness" in that he suggests
that organisations should emulate the spider plant which,
when it gets too big for its pot, generates a new plant.
Expanding the role and influence of the localised business
unit, of course, cannot happen within a significant shift
in the role of the corporate office. In the Lawson Mardon
Group the role of the centre is seen as fivefold: new
money, new people, dissemination of best practices,
bringing a sense of reality to the units, and bringing
synergistic learning processes to the business overall.
Creating the Learning Tools

Learning happens as a result of planned development

activities, opportunitistic response and, not infrequently,
by accident. Learning is a feature of off-the-job activities
and on-the-job coaching. Learning encompasses shortterm skill requirements and longer-term development
needs. Learning focuses on problem solving and problem
avoidance learning in isolation and within a team. In
short, learning is less about events and activities than it
is about a philosophy or a belief system.

Building a learning culture is

a difficult and often timeconsuming task
Much of the learning that takes place in the organisation,
however, is intuitive in that managers acquire skills that
they do not necessarily always understand. Lack of insight
into the behaviours involved, in turn, limits the manager's
ability to mentor and coach others. To complement the
manager's intuitive skills, therefore, it is essential that
the organisation provide appropriate learning tools.
The learning tools represent, in a real sense, not a
destination but a journey one that can be anticipated
but which will include the unexpected. Perhaps the best
way to think of the challenge involved, and the need to
develop appropriate learning tools, is by reference to the
series of learning experiences that have been developed
within the author's own organisation (see Figure 6).
Building a learning culture is a difficult and often timeconsuming task. Leadership, structure and learning tools


provide part but by no means all that is necessary.

Performance, management, succession - planning,
recruitment, information technology, work-flow design,
and the history of the firm, all play a part in the overall

Without learning tools the

desired change remains exactly
that a desire
A belief system about learning, however, is an essential
dimension of empowerment. Without the right leadership
the status quo remains the only way. With a structure
retaining power in the hands of the few, self-interest
remains an overwhelming ethic. Without learning tools the
desired change remains exactly that a desire.

Empowerment is a noble aim, but without hard work and

appropriate support systems it will remain a pious dream.
Language is an important part of the management process.
Unfortunately few, if any, words in the management lexicon
have a common well-defined understanding. Empowerment
is yet another example of this shortfall. And yet
empowerment is an important concept that can unlock the



Building a Learning "Net"



energy and talent that resides within an organisation and

is therefore at the heart of competitiveness. Because
power within an organisation is a difficult and poorly
understood issue, employee empowerment as a subcomponent is also likely to be poorly understood.

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Interventions aimed at generating higher levels of

empowerment need to emphasise: redefining the
supervisor's power base; the issues implicit in what we
have called boundaries management; and the basic building
blocks for generating a supportive learning culture.

Empowerment can unlock the

energy and talent that resides
within an organisation
The Ptolemaic system prevailed in astronomy for nearly
1,500 years until a model proposed by Copernicus with
the sun, not the earth at the centre became the
accepted model. The management process with the
manager rather than the employee at the centre has
similarly outlasted its time. Empowerment is more than
a technique, more than a process, and more than a means
to an end. Empowerment is about a way of thinking and,
as Copernicus found, changing people's thinking is never


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John O. Burdett is Vice-President of Lawson Mardon Group, a large printing and packaging conglomerate based in Toronto,

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