Employee Empowerment - To Utilize Unused Potential

By Ashit K Sarkar,Retired Sr Vice President-HR, ITC and Britannia Industries

Mr. Ashit Sarkar is a Management Advisor & Consultant - after having over 47 years of professional career & rich experience - mainly in ITC and Britannia Industries Ltd, having retired as Senior VP-HR. He has been connected with many professional bodies like NIPM, AIMA, EFI, GMCC, BMA, FKCCI, and AIMO etc., and represented the Indian employers at Geneva as a member of the ILOs Second Food & Drinks Committee (1991-96). Many of his articles have been published in reputed journals, books or papers, and he has made many presentations & given a large number of talks at various professional Seminars, Workshops & other forums, and was a guide & examiner for Ph D students at Indian Institute of Science.

HR strategy focuses on achievement of organizational goals. We have learned that it is finally the people in the organization who make the difference to produce excellence.

Maslow’s five-stage ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ pyramid model developed in 1940-50’s for human needs starting from the basic (1) Biological & Physiological,  (2) Safety, (3) Belonging & Love, (4) Esteem, to finally (5) Self-actualization needs of people, highlighted in understanding human motivation. Earlier, Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management theory & Elton Mayo’s Hawthorne experiments were the forerunners to improve methods or practices in industry, whilst Max Weber and Henri Fayol made significant contributions to Bureaucracy and Administration management concepts.

Maslow’s model was followed with Fredrick Herzberg’s motivational theory that summarized “the job satisfiers deal with factors involved in doing the job, whereas the job dissatisfiers deal with the factors which define the job context."  His analysis of the ‘motivators’ and ‘hygiene factors’ differentiated the outcomes through measuring ‘satisfaction’ & ‘dissatisfaction’. Herzbergs remarkable ideas relate strongly to the modern ethical and social responsibility, and were developed several decades before such organizational perspectives. On similar vein, Harvard psychologist David McClelland summarized in ‘The Achieving Society’ “the needs-based motivational model” identifying (1) ‘achievement motivated’, (2) ‘authority motivated’ and (3) ‘affiliation motivated’ persons, and stating that most people exhibit a combination of these three characteristics.

In ‘The Human Side of Enterprise’ Douglas McGregor proposed famous Theory X and Y, describing two very different attitudes toward workforce motivation. He identified the authoritarian style of management as ‘X’, having the belief that average persons avoids responsibility and needs to be directed and controlled, and ‘Y’ as the participative style where people usually accept and often seek responsibility; they apply self-control and self-direction; and that the intellectual potential of the average person is only partly used.

This article focuses on one important aspect: How to get the best from the people for the achievement of the vision/mission, using motivational theories stated above. While ‘Employee Development’ is important and essential, lot more is necessary for excellence. Motivation; teamwork and supportive colleagues/peers play important role, with work-culture and management style. These are complex issues and require long term nurturing to be effective, and there is no unique or uniform success formula that is applicable to all.

Employee empowerment is considered to be very important value adder in performance management. It utilizes the unused potentials of the human resource. It is one of the critical strategies in transforming organizations. It is a democratizing function with greater employee involvement and commitment as key factors. Richard Crawford stated “In the Era of Human Capital…”: “Those who focus on an empowered workforce will continue to gain the competitive edge over those who ignore it as a powerful economic factor”.  Stephen Covey stated: "An empowered organization is one in which individuals have the knowledge, skill, desire, and opportunity to personally succeed in a way that leads to collective organizational success."  It may be noted that employee empowerment is an extensions and further development of Theory Y.

However, empowerment is not an easy concept, and is often unclear to the users themselves, whose perception and understanding vary considerably.  Many just pay lip service to this term, and in reality it remains only in paper.  For effective empowerment the "secret" to success is that employees are provided the goals, the training, and the "freedom" needed to "own" their new demands and become fully accountable. This two-way "contract" demands from employees and their work teams a direct contribution to the corporate profitability, and from the employer the trust, delegated authority, and resources needed.

Dr. Stephen R Covey has explained this very lucidly: “Perhaps the first step in creating an empowered work force is having everyone gain a shared understanding of what empowerment is - and what it is not. It is the powerful governing principle at the managerial level of any organization.

Many managers think of empowerment as delegating decision making to the lowest level possible. In practice, we too often find "empowering" bosses delegating responsibility to subordinates without sufficient authority, understanding, resources or supportive guidance to be effective. People who think they are "empowered" too often resist the limitations and guidance that must accompany any responsibility. True empowerment is not: responsibility without authority or resources, authority to "do your own thing" without limits or accountability, power without focus or consequences, or abandonment by the boss or supervisor.”

Empowerment is ensuring employees closest to a problem or need, have the authority to make judgments on how the problem is to be solved, or the need to be met.  Empowerment does not mean unlimited license. It implies responsible freedom in a trusting environment. Empowerment is not a gift bestowed by a benevolent leader. The job of the leader is to release power by removing barriers that keep employees from acting with power in a responsible manner. Empowerment becomes a partnership in focused energy for creating the ‘go the extra mile’ enthusiasm. The wise leader recognizes the enormous power that can be harnessed when barriers to responsible freedom are eliminated and employees are encouraged to think like owners. Empowerment is a never-ending journey. Simplistically expressed: “Employee empowerment is a term used to express the ways in which junior staff can make autonomous decisions without consulting a boss. These self-willed decisions can be small or large depending upon the degree of power with which the company wishes to invest to the employees”.

Empowerment culture in an enterprise demands:

  • An empowering style of leadership that nurtures, coaches, mentors, releases, encourages and supports people in achieving their best.
  • Culture being universal (not functional, departmental or manager specific), and has complete top management support.
  • Individuals and teams focused on organizational goals, which are clear.
  •  Policies and plans are openly available and regularly reviewed.
  • Mistakes and problems discussed openly, constructively and candidly.
  • Cross-functional collaboration and communication are encouraged.
  • Feedback and critique are routinely done.
  • Risk is considered a condition of growth and change; mistakes are accepted as positive lessons.  Poor performance is confronted timely.
  • Initiative and innovation are encouraged and supported.
  • Positive and fair employee recognition/reward system practiced, and which is market competitive. 

Empowered organizations are made of empowered persons; its not necessarily true that a group of empowered persons automatically create an empowered organization. It has to be understood that Empowerment is not about "letting go, its about sharing your power with the ones below you. Employee empowerment is often viewed as an inverted triangle of organizational power. In the traditional view, management is at the top while customers are on the bottom; in an empowered environment, customers are at the top while management is in a support role at the bottom.

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