Power and Empowerment
KeywordsOrganizational Performance Organizational Member Organizational Leader Organizational Outcome Extrinsic Reward
Definitions (from the Oxford Dictionary)
Power: “The ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality” (e.g., the power of speech), “The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events” (e.g., the idea that men should have power over women), “Political or social authority or control, especially that exercised by a government” (e.g., a power struggle), and “A person or organization that is strong or influential within a particular context” (e.g., he was a power in the university.).
Empowerment: “Authority or power given to someone to do something” (e.g., individuals are given empowerment to create their own dwellings.) and “The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights” (e.g., political steps for the empowerment of women.).
This paper will discuss two interesting and interrelated concepts: power and empowerment. First, this study explains similarities and differences between these concepts. Second, this paper’s focus shifts to empowerment: The definition and construction of employee empowerment will be provided. Then, this paper discusses the benefits and costs of power and empowerment. Due to the importance of empowerment, this paper briefly extends the discussion of power and empowerment and offers future research agendas. Finally, a discussion and conclusion are provided.
One of the most interesting concepts within organizational behavior is power. Power refers to the ability to do something or to have authority in an organization, whereas empowerment refers to the distribution of power from the top to employees working at lower levels. Thus, empowerment refers to granting power to middle-level managers and frontline employees, yet all types of employees possess power. In particular, senior level employees and political appointees possess more power.
Two basic assumptions of organization theory are that all individuals, organizational units, and organizations want to survive and flourish (prosper). One important way to survive and flourish is to gain power. In fact, all types of organizational member – regardless of whether they are members of public, private, or nonprofit organization – use or aim to use power to influence others. For instance, employees and managers form coalitions, engage in organizational politics, and negotiate to influence organizational processes and outcomes. Thus, organizational power and politics need to be recognized as they occur in every organization.
Likewise, in order to minimize dependency, individuals form coalitions and try to acquire more power. It is usually the case that the higher the position a person has in an organization, the better their access to resources including information, money, and human, so these people can attain greater power. Nevertheless, power relationships are not always hierarchical. For instance, someone from the lowest level of the organizational hierarchy may have power over the organization and organizational leaders based on her or his technical skills. Finally, frontline employees may be empowered, which implies that they have some power to do something. For instance, if an organization provides empowerment to employees, then these employees may determine some of the processes and outcomes of organizational products and services. In this regard, the relations of power and empowerment are very dynamic; they can shift depending on organizational structures, organizational policies, the budget and resources of organizations, and the types, sizes, and characteristics of organizational leaders, teams, and employees.
Similarities and Differences Between Power and Empowerment
“Power” and “empowerment” concepts are one of the most interesting topics of the organizational behavior and management studies. They have very similar meanings, yet these terms also contradict each other. Empowerment includes the word of “power,” and both concepts share the same “root” in the English language. Both of these concepts imply power, authority, and influence. However, these terms also differ significantly. These terms imply different contexts, processes, and outcomes.
First, power is as old as history itself. The intellectual roots of power go back to the early ages. Philosophers like Plato and Aristoteles discussed power and how to use power effectively, justly, or coercively. The Prince, written by Niccolo Machiavelli in the sixteenth century, is the most significant example of a thorough examination of power. Throughout the book, Machiavelli discusses elements of and types of power; how to gain power, use power, and control power; and how to navigate relationships of dependency. He argued that power is not only desirable but also necessary for leaders. The philosopher Max Weber, however, was suspicion of the use of power.
In contrast, the concept of empowerment goes back to the Human Relations Movement in the 1930s, making it a much newer concept. Employee empowerment programs and policies were not implemented until the 1980s. Since the 1980s, management scholars and governments around the world have discussed the importance of empowerment in public and private organizations. In fact, empowering employees and managers was one of the ideas of the New Public Management (NPM) reforms globally and of the National Performance Review (NPR) in the United States. One problem with the NPM and NPR reform applications is that their focus has been primarily on empowering middle-level managers rather than frontline employees.
Second, the field of organizational behavior consists of five important disciplines: psychology, sociology, social psychology, anthropology, and political science. In other words, these five disciplines contribute to the field of organizational behavior. Power is primarily studied by the disciplines of political science and anthropology, while empowerment is primarily explored in psychology, social psychology, and sociology. In fact, empowerment is one of the hot topics of management and business studies.
Third, while power refers to an accumulation of power at the top of an organization, empowerment implies reducing some powers at the top and distributing some of this power to employees. In this regard, power and empowerment can be seen as opponents in a zero-sum game: The higher the power of an individual at the top (e.g., the President and CEO), the lower the power of the individuals below (e.g., middle-level managers or frontline employees). The more empowered the workplace, the less power is held by top managers. In some cases, even within an organizational structure of centralized power relationships, some managers may not have been able to exercise their power (e.g., the manager may lack referent power like charisma). On the other hand, a skillful employee may hold more power than the managers. Thus, empowerment refers to sharing or distributing power.
Fourth, the bureaucratic structure focuses on power, status, and extrinsic rewards (Thompson 1965). Less bureaucratic organizations, on the other hand, focus on empowerment rather than power, outcome rather than status, and intrinsic rewards rather than extrinsic rewards. Therefore, power structures are indicative of the type of organization as well as organizational structure and design. For instance, while traditional government structures imply hierarchy, chains of command, and powerful elected officials or agency leaders, a network-type of organization focuses less on hierarchy and more on shared empowerment. In this regard, more bureaucratic organizations focus on power, while less bureaucratic organizations focus on empowerment.
Fifth, the idea of empowerment started in the 1930s and 1940s in opposition to the scientific management movement. The scientific management movement in the early twentieth century focused on efficiency, mechanization, top-down management, and labor productivity, so the movement discouraged the empowerment of consulting employees. Empowerment in the workforce, on the other hand, implies democratization, humanization, and employee participation in the workplace. As a result, despite the similarity of these terms, these two terms have different implications.
Defining and Constructing Employee Empowerment
Employee empowerment has received significant attention within both scholarly research and popular literature since the 1980s, but disagreement abounds over how to best define, conceptualize, and measure it. At least one broad cleavage exists: empowerment as a relational/management construct and empowerment as a psychological/motivational construct. First, employee empowerment as a relational/management construct consists of a set of practices that managers can employ. For instance, according to Bowen and Lawler (1992, p. 32), empowerment practices include: “(1) information about the organization’s performance, (2) rewards based on the organization’s performance, (3) knowledge that enables employees to understand and contribute to organizational performance, and (4) power to make decisions that influence organizational direction and performance.”
Second, employee empowerment as a psychological or motivational construct contends that empowerment is a cognitive state in which a person or an employee feels enhanced feelings of self-efficacy, self-determination (e.g., autonomy and competence), and task motivation. More specifically, in his seminal work, Spreitzer (1995) defines psychological employment as “a motivation construct” and elaborates the construct as consisting of four interrelated dimensions: meaning, self-determination, competence, and impact, which together create an active orientation to take actions that shape the work role or environment.
Both constructs and definition include elements of power. For instance, regarding the latter approach, employees’ beliefs about their autonomy and competence indicate that they have power – powers of controlling, learning, achieving tasks, and shaping the environment. While the second approach implies power, the first approach, on the other hand, clearly states power: Employees need power so that they can make decisions that influence organizational outcomes such as organizational performance. To empower employees, organizations can provide resources to employees and train them. They can allocate rewards to higher achievers. They can share information about performance. However, without power, employees or middle-level managers cannot achieve organizational outcomes. Thus, power is the most important facet of employee empowerment.
Benefits and Costs of Power and Empowerment
The benefits and costs of power and empowerment have different implications. Employee empowerment has become a recent trend over the last few decades. The benefits of power and empowerment are that they allow organizational members to exercise authority and make decisions. As mentioned in the previous section, power is a crucial part of empowerment. If employees are not provided with enough power, they are not able to implement policies, allocate resources, coordinate employees, and execute decisions. Pfeffer (1992, p. 338) states that “In corporations, public agencies, universities, and government, the problem is how to get things done, how to move forward, how to solve the many problems facing organizations of all sizes and types.” Pfeffer (1992) states that power is necessary for managing organizations. Organizational members need power; they need to understand power dynamics and strategies that develop power. Additionally, empowerment allows organizational members to join in the decision-making process, so empowerment is consistent with democracy and humanization in the workplace.
The negative aspects of empowerment may be the following: First, although empowerment may work well for service organizations, it may not work as well for product types of organizations. While the former focuses on “service” and customer and employee satisfaction, the latter focuses on efficient and timely production. Because empowerment may take time and be costly, empowerment may not work as well within the latter type of organization. Second, public organizations typically have a bureaucratic culture. Because bureaucratic culture emphasizes rules and regulations, empowerment might disrupt the hierarchical chain of command, increasing conflicts in the organization. Third, giving power to employees without controls or a system of checks and balances may cause an excessive use of power, conflicting with the goal of democracy. As a result, too much empowerment may cause indecision, delays of processes and outcomes, inefficiency, and the accumulation of power by a few influential individuals.
In this regard, the use of power and empowerment is an art, science, and craft. If employees are not given any power or incentives, empowerment cannot be achieved in organizations. Employees not only need support but also power to take action and make decisions. On the other hand, excessive empowerment and power have potential problems. Thus, it is necessary to achieve balance while keeping in mind the contingencies of the organization: How and what level of power and empowerment should be granted to employees depends on time, type of organization, the characteristics of organizational stakeholders, leadership and employee quality, the level of red tape, and the external environment. Political and organizational leaders should find the right balance considering all these factors. Empowerment should not undermine or eliminate the bureaucratic or democratic process.
If people share a common set of goals, a common perspective on what to do and how to accomplish it, and a common vocabulary that allows them to coordinate their behavior, then command and hierarchical authority are of much less importance. People will be able to work cooperatively without waiting for orders from the upper levels of the company. Managing through a shared vision and with a strong organizational culture has been a very popular prescription for organizations. (Pfeffer 1992, p. 25)
Extensions of Power and Empowerment and Future Research Agenda
One interesting concept is the importance of the sources of power and empowerment. The sources of power can be formal (e.g., a legitimate power like formal authority in organizations, coercive power, and reward power) or informal (e.g., expert power, like that of an employee who has extensive skills and knowledge of technology). When a manager or an employee has formal or informal power, she or he can be considered powerful. On the other hand, empowerment is generally given by organizations or organizational managers to middle-level managers or frontline employees. Thus, while empowerment is given, power can be either taken (e.g., expert power) or given.
Another important question is how employees and managers use power or empowerment to influence other organizational members. The answer may be simple, but its implications are complex. One implication is that organizational members can use tactics to influence others. There are several tactics for achieving power and empowerment. For instance, a manager or an employee can make logical claims and provide evidence to gain something, a tactic called rational persuasion. Or, she can consult and ask managers for additional power or distributing power. Or, she can give something to a manager and ask for a favor in return to gain power. For example, an employee who is skilled with computer software programs can help the organization, and her supervisor may promote her. There are many tactics that organizational members can use more or less successfully to gain power and empowerment. Although research exists on power bases and sources of power, no research is available regarding the bases and sources of empowerment. Thus, future research may focus on the latter.
How can power and empowerment be applied usefully to other concepts? Or, how can researchers use power and empowerment to explain other phenomena? This and the following paragraphs will briefly discuss how empowerment can be used as a dependent, independent, moderator, and mediator variable. First, researchers can treat power or empowerment as the dependent variable. The use of power increases where resources are limited, where disagreements occur on goals, and where there is a high level of interdependence and decentralization and a climate of uncertainty about knowledge and equipment (Pfeffer 1981, 1992). However, the factors effecting empowerment are not well known. For instance, how do organizational structures and type of organization affect the adoption of empowerment practices? How does the climate of innovation affect empowerment? Future research can continue to analyze these factors.
Second, researchers can treat power and empowerment as independent variables. For instance, an interesting question would be: What are the outcomes of empowerment and power? How do empowerment and power influence individual, group, or organizational performance? It would be interesting to analyze how empowerment as an overall practice or facets can affect employees’ job satisfaction, performance, innovativeness, creativity, organizational commitment, job involvement, decision-making, turnover, affective commitment, and barriers to innovation. Although some studies exist on these topics, more studies are needed for comparison and to build knowledge of the effects of empowerment.
Third, power and empowerment can function as mediators, or moderators, as the connection between organizational structures and organizational outcomes can be mediated by power, or empowerment can mediate the relationship between perceived accountability and innovative behavior. Although studies exist considering empowerment as a mediator or moderator, using power as a mediator or moderator is not common. Finally, future researchers could also analyze the relationship of power and empowerment to accountability and the relationship of power and accountability to networks and collaborative governance. As a result, power and empowerment and the relationships among these concepts and employee attitudes seem very promising topics for future research.
Understanding power and empowerment processes in organizations can contribute to the success of groups and organizations. Rather than power, powerlessness is the problem. While power is crucial for leadership, empowerment is crucial for organizational success. Although empowerment is not an essential part of management, it can increase employees’ job satisfaction, motivation, and commitment, and it can reduce barriers to innovation and turnover in the workplace as well as improving organizational performance. Thus, power and empowerment are neither tasks nor ends; rather, they are processes or essential means to achieving organizational and individual ends.
All types of organizations include people who use power in order to influence other people, organizational outcomes, and organizational decisions. “People who acquire and use power appropriately and well are persuasive, have a positive influence on others, and are better able to obtain necessary support and resources for programs, people, and priorities” (Denhardt et al. 2012, p. 238). Likewise, “Innovation and change in almost any arena require the skill to develop power, and the willingness to employ it to get things accomplished” (Pfeffer 1992, p. 345). As a result, the important question is not whether power exists or whether leaders should use power. The important questions are how power is being used to help achieve organizational goals and whether these uses of power are ethical. In fact, public value and ethics should be top priorities in the public sector. In this regard, power should not be the goal or the end in itself. Instead, power can be a means to achieve organizational outcomes such as better organizational performance. At the same time, ethical public service should be a priority. The use of power and empowerment should always be consistent with ethical standards. Otherwise, history has taught us that power corrupts. Finally, in terms of applications in a democratic context, in addition to empowering employees, citizens need to be empowered. Specifically, from a relational perspective, citizens need to be empowered and given information about how the government is doing.
This paper has discussed the concepts, constructs, benefits, costs, and research agenda of power and empowerment. At least two constructs of empowerment exist in the literature: psychological/motivational and relational/management. As a management approach, empowerment aims to share information, rewards, resources, and power with middle- and low-level employees. Power is a crucial part of empowerment. While the study of power is as “old” as history itself, empowerment is the “new” object of study of the newly established subdiscipline of organizational behavior. While power is primarily associated with political or organizational leaders, empowerment is associated with frontline employees and middle-level managers. The former implies accumulating power at the top of the hierarchy, whereas the latter implies distributing power from the top to the bottom of the organization. These terms possess both similarities and differences in terms of application and implications.
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