Compliments of Christopher Penn via Flickr

Compliments of Christopher Penn via Flickr

WANTED: Bureaucracy basher, willing to challenge convention, assume big risks, and rewrite the accepted rules of industrial order.” (Byrne, 1993, p. 1).

The semester project in my graduate OD class was crafting a term paper.  The assignment was to: [Describe]

  • Ways in which companies can “disempower” their employees [e.g., through bullying, lack of voice, excessive bureaucracy, micromanagement, inept performance appraisal, and monitoring];
  • Methods that “exemplary” companies are using to provide a more “egalitarian” workforce;
  • Recommendations and conclusions regarding specific ways in which you would empower employees in your own fictitious company.

This semester I thought that my student teams did a superb job in responding. One group (aka “Team Fortitude”) argued that misconduct, micromanagement, behavior that engenders mistrust (like lack of transparency) combined with inaction (ignoring or failing to acknowledge workers) creates disempowerment [see the attached diagram]. From Team Fortitude:

  • Misconduct could involve making the employees feel worthless, threatening [them], speaking inappropriately, and public shaming.
  • Mistrust may involve a lack of information transparency, resistance in delegating, and monitoring.
  • Micromanagement may involve no employee job control, making decisions without consulting the affected employees, dictating what each person is to do, immersion in others’ projects, and correcting tiny details.
  • Inaction is any action that a leader should be doing, but is failing to do.  This may involve employees being ignored or rarely acknowledged by the leadership.”

Employees feel happy when they are appreciated, have a say in how their work is accomplished, and experience respectful interaction. This buoyancy translates into increased customer responsiveness.

Team Fortitude made some great points regarding management and two way communication; e.g.: “Leadership either ignoring or rarely acknowledging their employees’ efforts is a form of inaction that disempowers employees. This can be expressed in multiple forms:

  • A lack of support or guidance when an employee is having trouble with a work assignment.
  • A lack of openness to ideas.
  • Setting employees’ goals without their input.
  • Minimal or no engagement with the employees.
  • Failing to recognize employees’ efforts.”

Employees treated like partners (as opposed to puppets) take pride in their work, instead of performing as “clock punchers.” In The Power of We: Succeeding through Partnerships, Jonathan Tisch (Chairman and CEO of Lowes Hotels) suggests that competitive salary (established through market survey) “creative benefits,” and non-monetary recognition (awarded to employees who are caught in the act of performing exemplary service) are empowering.

He stresses that it’s not an annual banquet or a specific reward opportunity that makes work great, but rather a culture that stresses treating people fairly that creates a pillar of corporate success. Lowes’ “upside down approach” encompasses “.  . . giving [employees] the tools and resources they need to do their jobs while supporting them from above” and  making employee “dignity, safety, and self-worth” just as important as giving guests a premium experience.

Empowerment in its most basic form suggests giving employees’ the reigns, and trusting that they’ll do the right thing. Managers who keep to themselves may have a difficult time trusting their team mates. Team Fortitude convincingly argues: “When employees feel more comfortable talking with the leadership about the problems they have at work, it is more likely that leadership will be responsive in how to better serve the employees.” Getting to know people on a personal basis and communicating on a continual level not only makes you feel comfortable, but increases direct reports’ esteem as well.

Workers feel disempowered when no one solicits their opinion, and when only one person appears to be calling the shots. In extending your ear at least they feel heard – which may cushion the blow if you’re unable to satisfy requests. It’s easy to snow plow over people who don’t say much. As a former co-worker once remarked: “I’ll push until someone pushes back.” The results of this presumptive arrogance only satisfy one party. Avenues for dealing with pent-up frustration are many, with few yielding positive results. Zeff argues that poor relationships with people stem from chronic frustration and anger, the cumulation of which depresses endorphins. This is why it’s so important for managers to play offense when soliciting feedback.



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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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