Empowerment in New Zealand
firms: insights from two cases
in New Zealand
Amelia C. Smith
Department of Management, University of Canterbury, Christchurch New Zealand and
V. Suchitra Mouly
Department of Management, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand
The growing popularity of programmes aimed at empowering employees through changes in work practices has been well-documented in the management literature (Conger and Kanungo, 1988; Osterman, 1994). Workplace reform, which is increasingly popular in New Zealand organizations, is an example of such a strategy. As a research topic, empowerment appears to be a nascent area insofar as the prevailing definitions do not reflect a common or shared understanding of the process. The business press in New Zealand offers anecdotal evidence that New Zealand firms are slow to empower employees (Story, 1997). The present paper explores the phenomenon of empowerment in New Zealand firms through casestudies of two New Zealand manufacturing organizations that have introduced programmes of workplace reform. (Besides the study of McDonald and Sharma, 1994, that focused on the New Zealand Income Support Service, which is a public service organization, we are unaware of any published case-studies of the performance of New Zealand organizations that have undertaken an empowerment programme.)
Our study attempts to gain a clearer understanding of what empowerment means to different people both within and across New Zealand organizations. There appears to be scant published empirical evidence on the extent to which employees actually feel empowered as a result of prescriptions, such as those of Byham (1991); thus, through interviews, the present study seeks to uncover the perceptions of employees of the extent to which they feel empowered. Finally, on the basis of case data, it proffers a set of factors that either facilitate or inhibit empowerment in New Zealand organizations. (For a fuller account of the study reported here, the reader is referred to Smith, 1997.)
The authors thank Jay Sankaran for his useful comments on an earlier version of the paper..
Empowerment in Organizations,
Vol. 6 No. 3, 1998, pp. 69-80.
© MCB University Press, 0265-671X
Empowerment in Literature review
Conger and Kanungo (1988) identified a growing interest in the concept of Organizations
empowerment and related management practices among both management 6,3
researchers and practitioners. However, current understanding of the concept is limited and rather unclear. Empowerment, as a construct, has not received the same analytical treatment from management scholars as the construct of power (Conger and Kanungo, 1988).
Empowerment – a definition
The literature contains several definitions of empowerment, each of which offers a slightly different perspective. For example, Conger and Kanungo (1988: 474) define empowerment as:
a process of enhancing feelings of self-efficacy among organizational members through the identification of conditions that foster powerlessness and through their removal by both formal organizational practices and informal techniques of providing efficacy information.
In terms of a working definition of empowerment, Wellins et al. (1991) propose that an organization empowers people when it enables employees to take on more responsibility and to make use of what they know and can learn. Empowerment has been defined as “recognising and releasing into the organization the power that people already have in their wealth of useful knowledge and internal motivation” (Randolph, 1995, p. 20). This definition does not view empowerment as a “transfer of power”, from the employers to the employees. Rather it is seen more as “enabling” employees to make use of the power they already possess.
Conger and Kanungo (1988) suggest that, like the concept of power, empowerment can be viewed in two ways. First, it can be viewed as...
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