“To make empowerment successful, executives need to start with some probing questions about what this concept means and about their own management style.” - Quinn and Spreitzer (1997)
The concept of empowerment is popular in today’s organization-speak. It’s widely embraced as a foundation for a healthy organizational culture. However, as they say, the devil is in the details. The methods by which leaders can incorporate strategies that facilitate the development of an organizational culture that fosters empowerment throughout the entire system are multifaceted and quite often elusive.
Through a series of structured interviews researchers Quinn and Spreitzer (1997) investigated the principle of empowerment from the perspective of both the mechanistic and the organic organizational paradigms. From the mechanistic orientation empowerment is viewed as a set of isolated managerial practices for cascading power down to lower levels of organizational hierarchy using an emphasis on delegation and accountability. In contrast, the organic orientation conceptualizes empowerment as a process of risk taking, personal growth and professional development. The authors consider each of these separate perspectives as providing only a partial and incomplete picture of the process of empowerment. They advocate a more holistic standpoint which embodies a balance between both of these constructs.
Additionally, Quinn & Spreitzer explore the reasons why typical empowerment efforts at the organizational level often fail, the most common of which being a “checklist mentality” whereby oversimplified packaged programs which address a single aspect are presented in a short-term modality with no genuine commitment and no consistent application. In this way no real change occurs, and typical patterns of behavior perpetuate while on paper all the necessary mechanisms for growth and development have been addressed.
In response to the difficulties, Quinn and Spreitzer (1997) prescribe a comprehensive program for introducing and perpetuating an empowerment momentum which is based upon a series of complex questions for leaders to continuously examine and a system of self-monitoring which facilitates real change.
Specifically they argue for incorporating seven key questions managers must confront if they hope to implement empowerment effectively (1997, p. 38). These include,
1. What do we mean when we say we want to empower people?
2. What are the characteristics of an empowered person?
3. Do we really need empowered people?
4. Do we really want empowered people?
5. How do people develop a sense of empowerment?
6. What organizational characteristics facilitate employee empowerment?
7. What can leaders do to facilitate employee empowerment?
Empowerment, like leadership, is an elusive and enigmatic concept. Clearly, organizational effectiveness is heightened when members of a team feel that their actions and decisions are respected and consequential within their sphere of influence. However, the process by which a leader successfully fosters such an organizational climate is not a simple endeavor.
It is a natural aspect of human nature to desire a level of mastery and control over one’s domain, however large or small that might be. Furthermore, it follows that an empowered person will have the confidence and security to strive farther and harder toward creative innovations.
Given the complex bureaucratic and political nature of many modern organizational structures, the application of many leadership principles, including the fostering of empowerment among workers, is truly difficult. However, it should not be ignored. It is the strong empowered individuals who will lead organizations successfully through the challenges of the future and be at the forefront of that march toward progress.
Quinn, R. E. & Spreitzer, G. M. (October 1997). The road to empowerment: Seven questions every leader should consider. Organizational Dynamics, 26, pp. 16-29.