Empowerment: Distributed Authorization
Empowerment is one of the key terms in buzzword bingo for managers (Figure 5). It is management talk for what scientists call distributed control. Some management experts don’t even like the word “empowerment”.1 The word suggests that people are “disempowered” by default and need to be “empowered” by their managers.2
Figure 5 Buzzword bingo for managers
However, the way an organization behaves and how it operates under national laws is ultimately the responsibility of its owners. Only the owners can decide which employees have the authority to hire other employees, the power of signing contracts with customers and vendors, the right to negotiate salaries, and who has access to the corporate bank account. Like it or not, but such employees are often called managers. And these managers have the possibility (and responsibility!) of further distributing their power and authority to other people.
So yes, in well-functioning organizations there is empowerment. Power and authorization start with the owners, but they are distributed among everyone else in the organization. This empowerment involves delegating work from managers to other people. After all, when control needs to be distributed, then the work that is needed to exercise that control must be passed around from shareholders to managers and to everyone else involved.
The main reason for managers to empower their organizations is to improve overall control. Plenty of other reasons for empowerment are cited in literature as well, such as improving worker satisfaction, increasing profitability, and strengthening competitiveness.3 But we should not forget that the real reason for empowerment is to improve control over the system. Managers empower people, and distribute control, to prevent the system itself from breaking down.
Unfortunately, empowering people sounds easier than it is. For some organizations, it requires a total culture change, which doesn’t happen overnight. This is one of the reasons that empowerment programs, despite the best efforts of those involved, often don’t provide immediate results.4