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Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp.

94 107, 2000 ISSN 0090-2616/00/$see frontmatter

2000 Elsevier Science, Inc. PII S0090-2616(00)00017-6

Re-thinking Empowerment:

Why Is It So Hard to Achieve?


T o date, empowerment remains one of

the most promising, yet mystifying,
concepts in business. First introduced into
Electric Co., Pacific Gas & Electric, Marriott
Corp., and a variety of lesser-known com-
panies like AES Corporation in Virginia,
the corporate world in the 1980s, it quickly Springfield Remanufacturing Corporation
became a buzzword with great promise. So in Missouri, and Chesapeake Packaging
far, however, it has had only selective im- Company in Maryland. Yes, empowerment
pact. The attraction was simple to under- can work and can work very well. But
stand; senior managers covet employees achieving it means turning inside out the
who accept responsibility, take a propri- assumptions about how managers and em-
etary interest in their work, and willingly ployees interact. Few managers and em-
work hard. At the same time, employees ployees really understand empowerment,
want to feel valued, involved in their jobs, and and they understand even less about how
proud of their work. to shake free of their traditional, hierarchi-
The bottom-line is that managers and cal mindsets and behavior patterns, and
employees want very compatible out- how to adopt a mindset and repertoire of
comes outcomes associated with em- behaviors consistent with empowerment.
powerment. Why then, has it been so hard Whether we focus on managers or employ-
for most companies to find real em- ees, the problem boils down to the need for
powerment? Why has the concept fallen massive change in people and organiza-
into such disrepute? My research and ex- tional systems.
perience in a wide variety of companies This paper will explore the core ele-
has taught me that the answer is at the ments of empowerment and examine why
same time simple and complex. It is time to peoples ingrained assumptions about
rethink our understanding of this power- organizations make empowerment both
ful tool. difficult to comprehend and even harder
to achieve. It will also focus on the com-
plex interplay between organizational
and human systems that must be
changed if movement to empowerment is
NOT A FLAWED CONCEPT to occur. The creation of this new, very
different culture will be broken down
The concept of empowerment is not into three stages, and I will show how
flawed. Indeed, many companies in a vari- three interlocking tools build on a foun-
ety of industries have successfully created dation of information flows to resolve
cultures of empowerment. The list includes the wide array of issues that arise at each
such well known companies as General stage of changing to empowerment.
My informal yet extensive research in a wide
variety of companies indicates that most
managers continue to define empowerment
as giving people the power to make deci-
sions. Although relocating the locus of de-
cision-making is a critical part of the empow-
erment process, that step alone is just
another manifestation of the manager acting
as director and controller. The manager still
mandates the decisions people are allowed
to make. This definition of empowerment
W. Alan Randolph is professor of management
also misses the essential point that people
in the Merrick School of Business, University of
already possess a great deal of power
Baltimore. He is also a consulting partner with
power that resides in their knowledge, expe-
the Ken Blanchard Companies, Escondido,
rience, and internal motivation. To achieve
California. Alan holds a bachelors in industrial real empowerment managers must embrace
engineering from the Georgia Institute of Tech- this wider concept and must focus on ways
nology and a masters and Ph.D. in business to release the power within people to
administration from the University of Massa- achieve astonishing results. Sounds simple,
chusetts. He has published in a variety of pro- right? Well, not so fast! There are other play-
fessional and academic journals on topics like ers who can inhibit this release of power.
empowerment, leadership, project manage- Employees, too, misunderstand empow-
ment, and international management. In 1995 erment. Many of them feel that empower-
he published Navigating the Journey to Em- ment means they will be given free rein to do
powerment in Organizational Dynamics. as they please and the freedom to make all
Recent books include The 3 Keys to Em- the key decisions about their jobs. Employ-
powerment: Release the Power Within People ees often fail to grasp that empowerment
for Astonishing Results, with Ken Blanchard means sharing risks and responsibilities as
and John P. Carlos (BerrettKoehler, 1999), the price for freedom to act, pride in their
Empowerment Takes More Than A Minute, with work, and ownership of their jobs. Indeed,
Ken Blanchard and John P. Carlos (Berrett empowerment entails much greater account-
Koehler, 1996), Getting the Job Done! Manag- ability for employees than in a hierarchical
ing Project Teams and Task Forces for Success, culture. But it is precisely this frightening
with Barry Z. Posner (PrenticeHall, 1992). He increase in responsibility that creates a sense
recently published a 10-booklet discussion se- of engagement and fulfillment on the job.
ries titled Power Up for Team Results, with Ken Empowerment is a strange combination of
Blanchard, John P. Carlos, and Peter B. Grazier opportunity and risk.
(BerrettKoehler, 2000). Randolph engages in In one retail food company, senior man-
consulting work on empowerment, perfor- agement became intrigued with the idea of
mance management processes, project man- empowering their people. They held an
agement, and self-directed teams. all-company meeting and announced that
they would begin to increase the decision-
making options for people at all levels of the
organization. As they did so, they were sur-
prised to find that little if any change in
peoples behavior was noticeable. The mid-
dle managers were extremely concerned
about losing control of the results for which
FALL 2000 95