Empowerment: Theoretical Background and Applications

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In transitioning from traditional hierarchical management structure to a

more open, democratic and participative approach, a key issue many

organizations face is empowering their employees. Empowerment is defined

for purposes of this paper as the ability of employees to " . . . use more

judgment and discretion in their work and to participate more fully in

decisions affecting their working lives." (Potterfield, 1999, p. 2). This

paper includes an analysis of the theoretical background of empowerment and

why it is important to the teams-building process, a brief discussion of

empowerment procedures (including a guideline for devising an Empowerment

Measure), and a discussion of possible problems that would arise in the

process. Finally, there will be a critique of some of the empowerment


Empowerment: Theoretical Background And Application

The face of the contemporary workplace is drastically changing. More and

more companies are realizing the value of more "flat", democratic

organizational structure over the traditional autocratic, hierarchical

management styles. Teams-based or participative organizations are now

becoming the norm, instead of many layers of middle management making all

the decisions effecting their subordinate workers. As companies grapple

with these changes, a crucial step is employee empowerment. Specifically,

how capable are the workers within this new teams-based organization of

functioning without the supervision of middle management? How reliable and

dependable can their decisions be as they take a more active role in the

development of the organization? The notion of empowerment seeks to answer

these questions. According to Potterfield (1999), and for purposes of this

paper, empowerment will be best defined as a way of bestowing upon

employees "the power to use more judgment and discretion in their work and

to participate more fully in decisions affecting their working lives." (p.

2). If organizations are to have the full participation and input of its

workers, then it is in its best interest to see to it that they are

operating at their fullest capacities and with complete confidence in their

abilities to make and implement these decisions. This paper will deal with

both how to empower employees in a transition to a participative or

teams-based organization, and pitfalls and critiques of this process.

First, however, a broader theoretical/historical background in empowerment

within a participative organization is necessary.

It is no small coincidence that the notion of empowerment in the workplace

took root in the 1960's, a turbulent time in America's history

(Potterfield, 1999; pp. 38-39). At every turn, it seemed that the overall

zeitgeist of that era was to question the structures of traditional power

and elicit a change for the betterment of humankind. There was most notably

of course both the Civil Rights movement and the youth counterculture

centered around anti-war sentiments, but this mindset even made inroads to

academic and philosophical thinkers of the time. The field of psychology

itself underwent far-reaching change as Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Kurt

Goldstein, Anthony Sutich, and other notable professionals in the field

spearheaded the Humanistic movement in reaction to what they felt was a

monopoly formed by behaviorism (Wertz, 1994, pp. 14-15). It is Maslow, the

central figure in the formation of Humanistic Psychology, who also proved

highly influential in the changes and re-evaluations that

Industrial/Organizational psychology underwent at the time, as well.

The impact Maslow made upon both these fields resides in his theories of

self-actualization. Maslow's objection to both the dominant behaviorism of

the time and Freudian psychoanalysis before it was that both were only

studies of the sick, the...
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